Udonis Haslem collected seven stitches this preseason, three above his right eye and four below his left eye. They were each the result of the Heat’s all-time leading rebounder doing what he does best — fighting for the basketball, clawing for control.
“Part of the game,” the 35-year-old veteran and Heat co-captain said Tuesday on the eve of his 13th season in the league. “I give them and I take them.”
With LeBron James gone, Chris Bosh hospitalized and an aging Dwyane Wade not getting much in the way of help, the Heat took their share of elbows last season, missing the playoffs for only the second time since Haslem and Wade came into the league together in 2003.
Now, armed with a new point guard in Goran Dragic, a 7-foot swatting machine in Hassan Whiteside and a healthy Bosh, the Heat is ready to start dishing out some pain again, and reestablish itself high up on the Eastern Conference food chain.
“If you can’t be motivated with the way last season ended, then you don’t deserve to be playing basketball,” Haslem said. “Going out the way we went out, that’s not the standard, not the norm and that’s not who we are. Just last year’s ending alone should be motivation enough to lay it all on the line.”
Wednesday night’s season-opener at AmericanAirlines Arena against the Charlotte Hornets is the start of that new journey.
Bosh, sidelined after last year’s All-Star break when it was discovered he had blood clots in his lung, was so pumped about the start of a new season he literally shouted it Tuesday.
“It’s been a long while for me,” Bosh said. “I’m just excited to get out in front of the fans, to play this game again with my teammates and have it count for something. The regular season is always a little bit different. Starters are going to play a lot more. The regular rotation guys are going to play a lot more. And teams are trying to win every game. It will be very exciting.”
Two years ago, when James was still here the regular season didn’t mean much to the Heat. It was all about being in position to play great basketball in the spring, when games really mattered in the playoffs. But last year’s 37-45, 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference was a humbling experience. So, too, for Bosh, was the fear of death.
He’s over that now. He’s hungry again. And so are his teammates.
“We’re a championship pedigree team with championship pedigree guys,” Bosh said. “We’re used to competing in the spring. That’s the time of the season to play basketball. Although you like the rest, we don’t like to see other teams have fun and succeed the way they were succeeding. We’re itching to get back out there. We realize we have a special opportunity with this group and we want to maximize it.
“It used to be that everybody was kind of putting the championship expectations on us and that’s what we had to deal with. We were good enough to say ‘Well, dont worry about [last year].’ Let’s talk about that later. But we’re in a situation now where we have to think about that every day if that’s what we really want. We can’t afford to have days where we’re slacking off… We just have to make sure we’re constantly putting the focus on that. When we get tired we have to remember that’s what we’re here for.”
The good news, Bosh said, is that he and Wade feel a lot less pressure on them than they did a year ago when James first left. Miami’s beefed up roster — featuring Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire and Josh McRoberts off the bench — has more scorers on it than it did last year. So, as Bosh put it Tuesday, he and Wade don’t have to wield it every night. They can be better facilitators and leaders.
“If we need to wield it we can, but that’s to take us over the hump, not just keep us in the game,” Bosh said. “We’re more talented. We have a deeper team. It’s going to require us to be a lot more efficient. We understand that. We’re going to have to get the ball moving and utilize that talent we have out there — that’s the most important thing.”
And that’s ultimately what the biggest question for this Heat team will be: can they mesh and find the right mix after having very little time to do so in the preseason?
“I know if it’s not done right it can look bad — bad as in still win games, but not the way we want to,” Wade said. “I know if it’s done right, it can be real good.
“But I don’t know which one we’re going to get yet. None of us do.”
Wednesday: Hornets at Heat
When, where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV, radio: FoxSports Sun; The Ticket (790 AM), WAQI (710 AM).
Series: Heat leads 55-37.
Scouting report: The Heat has won 11 straight games at home against Charlotte. Last year the team’s split the season series, each winning two games at home. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Charlotte has always been a very good defensive team and praised their shooting this preseason.