The best teams in any sport enjoy being associated with championships and a certain toughness. If not always physical toughness, definitely mental toughness.
So, as the year turns on the Heat’s past two championships and the hat trick possible a few months down the road, are they mentally tougher than a year ago? Are they better than a year ago?
Certainly, this Heat team has shown the ability to win with even more diverse lineup permutations than in past years and after spending most of some games on the wrong side of momentum.
“The Sacramento game (a 108-103 road loss on Dec. 27), we played very well in the first half,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We hit some adversity in the second half, and we didn’t respond to it well. Particularly on the road, you have to have that mental toughness, the resolve to be able to fight through things you can’t control. Whether it be an injury, a call, the other team going on an 8-0 run, you have to manage all those emotions and focus on executing under duress with great concentration.”
Spoelstra said they did that in ensuing road wins at Portland (without LeBron James) and Denver (without Dwyane Wade): “We actually didn’t play as well, but our mental toughness and resolve was better.”
James, forward Chris Bosh and Shane Battier thought the Heat definitely was mentally tougher than a year ago, particularly after last year’s playoffs.
“There’s not too many situations where we’re surprised as players,” Battier said.
“We’ve added two more seven-game series under our belts and come within seconds of losing the NBA Finals,” Bosh said. “Coming out of those situations still intact along with other things, it’s really gotten us a lot stronger mentally. Coming back for another training camp after defending the title, getting less time off, it’s been a very difficult road. I think it’s made us pretty strong as a unit.”
On the bottom-line numbers, the Heat is better. It was 23-9 after 32 games last year, 24-8 this year.
That’s with Wade being permanently day-to-day and missing exactly one fourth of the Heat’s games. That’s with forward Michael Beasley returning to his first NBA home, taking what’s essentially a tryout and turning it into an important presence off the bench but also missing 13 games.
Then again, the Eastern Conference, save a more experienced, improved Indiana, looks more like the Big Ten Conference compared with last year’s Eastern Conference.
As to whether the Heat was better, James said, “I don’t know. We’re close. We want to continue to get better.”
Bosh thought the Heat was better.
“We’re still working this season out,” Bosh said. “It takes a whole season to get to where we want to be. But I think we have a huge chance to be a lot better than we were last year and I think we’ll have to be because the competition out there has gotten a lot better. And if we want to win it again, we have to get a lot better.”
Battier said, “We’re a different team. Ultimately, we’ll be judged on our playoff performance, obviously. We’re different. It’s yet to be seen if we’re better or worse.”