Stronger than ever, Miami’s basketball kings begin the playoff defense of their throne this evening against the Milwaukee Bucks, who for what little remains of their season will be the equivalent of a meatloaf in the wild. Given that they lost this season more than they won, though, Milwaukee’s best players have been unusually yappy for a meatloaf. Guard Brandon Jennings guarantees the Bucks will beat the Heat in six games, and teammate Monta Ellis says he is Dwyane Wade without the championships, which is not unlike a musician saying he is Jimi Hendrix without the guitar. Alas, the loudest bark usually belongs to the dog that is most scared. In this particular jungle, the most skilled and successful hunters tend to approach prey more quietly.
“We don’t feel like we can be beaten in a series,” the Heat’s Chris Bosh said after practice Saturday, then felt the need to add, “We say that in the most humble way possible.”
This was not presumption or arrogance talking. This was a feeling presented as a fact. Miami’s basketball team not only believes itself to be the best, but is also armed with all of the most recent proof. Sports can be random, but this sport does a better job of weeding out the randomness than the others, the best-of-seven formats rewarding the most talented by forcing the anything-can-happen-in-one-game fluke so common to athletics to be repeated more times than not within seven tries. If Jennings were somehow to indeed be right, it would only be the biggest surprise in the history of the sport, if not in all of the history of all of the sports.
So this series at the beginning of this fun journey is not terribly interesting, but this is:
Viewed on a sociological scale, as a generalization carrying much truth, professional basketball is often our desperate inner cities fighting over money ... and an exit. The things that must be overcome to climb high enough to earn a living this way in America — poverty, desperation, violence, crime, upbringing, environment and all the other people trying to escape — make a player have unusual confidence in the skill set that rescued him from such things. The ecosystem and pipeline are so competitive and cutthroat for those dollars that, by the time they arrive in the pros, in the top 1 percent in the world at their business, basketball players are more confident in what they do than most of us will ever be at anything we do.
Team confidence, though, is an entirely different thing. It is built shot by shot, pass by pass, game by game, success by success over time. Just about everyone in the NBA believes in himself and his talent deeply, which is part of why Jennings and Ellis feel comfortable talking that way, but the trick is to believe in the guy next to you the very same way — to “trust,” which may be the single syllable Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra uses more than any other. “Confidence is so much easier individually,” Bosh said Saturday.
But Miami has now stacked so many triumphs and overcome obstacles atop one another, not only in winning the championship last year but in almost everything that has happened since, that there’s a certain amnesia in trying to remember how terrified everyone on this team and in this fan base was less than a year ago at about this time. One game. Game 6 at Boston last postseason, on the brink of elimination and perhaps the dismantling of the entire Miami blueprint. That one game is the difference between hoping and thinking you might be able to overcome and knowing now that you can. Confidence in any walk of life is usually built by stacking successes, and that’s what Miami has been doing nonstop since being pushed to the precipice in that Game 6 and then watching a furious LeBron James finally push back. What has happened since, an empire under construction, is equal parts revelation and liberation.
“People were ready to bury us, planning our wake,” the Heat’s Shane Battier said Saturday. “When your belief is rewarded at the bleakest time, your belief gets stronger. We overcame some major, major, major ramifications. Our confidence grew there. There’s a difference in us, but it is unspoken. No need to speak. That’s the ultimate measure of confidence.”
Battier works as a symbol for what has happened to this team over the past year as the players have developed comfort and confidence in the system, in the coach, in each other. Last season, his first on the team, Battier shot 34 percent from three-point range, the second-worst efficiency of his 14-year career. This year, he is at 43 percent, which is only by far the best efficiency of his career. That 10 percent difference is seismic in this sport. It is the difference this season in efficiency between LeBron James and Ersan Ilyasova. And it defies the aging process. And here’s how it happens:
“Last year, I had a lot of confidence struggles,” Battier says. “I was thrust into the circus on the run, and I battled myself, and I had to find a way to stop feeling sorry for myself. I had a nightmarish house-rental situation and never felt settled on or off the court. I’m at my worst when my routine is interrupted. It is a character flaw. But now I fit here. I have peace in my life. This is a much better way to live. I’m settled.”
He knows where he is supposed to be, in other words, and so do all his teammates, and there is comfort in that kind of confidence. It is why James, Wade and Bosh, great as they’ve always been, have never made a higher percentage of their shots than they have this year, working in concert like the parts inside a grandfather clock. Compare this to what is happening with Miami’s likely next opponent in Brooklyn, where Gerald Wallace is saying, “My confidence is totally gone. I think I lost the confidence of the coaching staff and my teammates.”
The confidence of this Miami team is so top-to-bottom that Spoelstra can admit now without feeling threatened that he totally failed LeBron his first year in Miami by not tailoring his system more creatively to his gifts. You don’t hear that kind of admission often in this muscled world, but when you do hear it, it certainly isn’t from the insecure. It is very hard to do a job well while scared. What has Spoelstra done since? Well, he has gone from failing to greedy. He is not even satisfied with merely winning the championship. He dared with spacing and system to change the team that was good enough to win the championship as it was last year. He knows this team was built to dominate not a season but an era.
“We believed last year,” Bosh says. “We believe more this year.”
The best basketball team in the world is also now the most confident.
Better than ever, in other words, even though it was already the best.
Good luck with that, Milwaukee.