Miami Heat targeted as team seeks championship three-peat

The reigning two-time NBA champions open their season Tuesday night, and their rivals are more motivated than ever to topple them.

10/29/2013 12:01 AM

03/14/2014 2:43 PM

Mark Cuban, owner of the last team to defeat the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals, recently uttered the names Micky Arison and Al Davis in the same sentence while comparing Arison’s Heat with Davis’ Oakland Raiders.

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah has forever called the Heat “Hollywood as hell.”

The Indiana Pacers, which have made losing to Miami in the playoffs an annual event, think the Heat gets away with cheating on defense and believe this so passionately that their coach once paid thousands of dollars in fines to say it publicly.

Such is the hate and hype around the NBA as the Miami Heat opens its regular season Tuesday night, seeking a championship three-peat and bragging rights as the third franchise in NBA history to make it to four consecutive NBA Finals.

In other words, there is no shortage of motivation for teams lining up this season to take their best shots at LeBron James and the Heat. Once again, everyone wants to knock off the champs, and, once again, the Heat must navigate the emotional and physical rigors of defending a title. It’s tiring business being the king of a rebellious empire, and, as Cuban so rightly pointed out this preseason, the Heat has been the NBA’s “bad guys” going on four seasons now.

“That’s always good for the NBA, when you have a team that everybody looks forward to beating,” said Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. “It’s just like when we beat them. I would go in places I’ve never been, and people would give me a standing ovation. That’s good for the NBA.”

Almost in response to Cuban, the Heat’s owner has used social media to count down the days leading up to opening night with professionally produced highlight videos that celebrate the Heat’s past championships. Rubbing opponents’ noses in the Heat’s success probably isn’t going to make anything easier this season, but the Heat has never done anything modestly. That’s just not Miami’s style.

On Monday, Arison tweeted “1 day until #HEAT2013Opening- Night” and “enjoy the ride,” along with a link to a video that featured the Heat receiving its 2012 championship rings.

For the Heat, the foundations of defending its second title in a row began this preseason in the Bahamas, and opening night of the regular season is Act 1 in a drama that is likely to stretch out for six months. First up Tuesday night are the Bulls, who will watch the Heat receive its 2013 championship rings in an elaborate pregame ceremony and then take the floor with point guard Derrick Rose for the first time since 2012.

The return of Rose, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, is one of the NBA’s biggest storylines heading into the season. The other, of course, is the Heat, which has won back-to-back championships and in May and June delivered back-to-back series in the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals on par with the best postseason memories in league history.

With the Miami Dolphins once again struggling, the Heat’s made-for-TV matchup on Tuesday will rekindle the flames of Heat mania in South Florida that never really went away.

‘Work to do’

Traditionally, teams have fared well on opening night the season after winning a championship. Since the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, defending champions are 19-5 in the first games following title runs. The 2006-07 Heat lost to the Bulls on opening night, but Miami defeated the Celtics to begin the 2012-13 season. In 2011-12, the Heat defeated the Mavericks on opening night to avenge the 2011 Finals.

The Heat’s players, who have looked sharper this preseason than in years past, say they are more focused on defeating the Bulls than on adding to their jewelry collections.

“I wish we could get the rings on the day of the parade,” said Udonis Haslem, who will receive his third championship ring before Tuesday’s game. “That’d be great, but obviously it’s something we got to do. We earned it, and it’s great for us and for the fans, but we got work to do and we got to understand that we got a team that’s coming in here and wanting to kick our butts.”

Rose’s return is just one example of how the top contenders in the Eastern Conference improved over the offseason in a push to topple the Heat’s dynasty. On paper, the roster moves and additions of the East’s top teams suggest the Heat might have a tougher time making it to the NBA Finals this season.

Then again, consider how difficult it was to obtain the second championship. It can’t get much harder than back-to-back, seven-game series with Ray Allen bailing out the Heat in Game 6 of the Finals.

It could be argued that winning another championship is entirely the wrong measure of success for the Heat. A team hasn’t played in four straight Finals since the 1987 Boston Celtics.

“It’s competitive, and we know it is,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The entire Eastern Conference has gotten better. The younger teams that dealt with some injuries last year made some changes. They’ll be much stronger as well.”

Five teams spread across three franchises — Celtics, Lakers and Bulls — have won back-to-back-to-back championships in the NBA. For the Heat to join that exclusive club would be nothing short of sports immortality, but it wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented, either. Five teams have failed to win three in a row after back-to-back championships, which means 50 percent of the teams in the NBA that have won back-to-back championships have gone on to win three straight.

Those are good odds, but these are better: Like last year, the Heat is the heavy favorite (21/10) to win the 2013-14 championship, according to online sports book bodog.net, and, in a recent survey, 75.9 percent of the NBA’s 30 general managers selected the Heat to win it all.

For the Heat, everything really boils down to one simple factor, and that’s the health of its players. When its stars are healthy, the Heat is the best team in the league. So far, so good.

“The most important thing is guys got through the preseason healthy, and now we go in at full strength,” Haslem said.

Expectations

It should also be noted that winning three championships in a row, while never easy, historically has been less difficult in the NBA than in any other professional sports league in North America. The NBA, the youngest of the four major leagues (founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America), has produced just as many back-to-back-to-back champions as the NHL, which is 38 years older. An NFL team has never won three consecutive Super Bowls, although the Green Bay Packers won three championships in a row twice before the introduction of the America’s biggest game.

Smartly, the Heat has tried to temper expectations, but, in all seriousness, good luck with that.

“I know how hard it is to win a championship period, to win one,” Wade said.

“To go to the Finals, it never gets easy, it never will be easy for [any] team. . . .” he said. “To win one, to win two, to win three, whatever the case may be, to even get there, a lot of guys haven’t even done that, so it’s just not easy to be a champion in this league, and that’s why there are only a small amount of organizations that have won a championship.”

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