Practice had wrapped up Sunday at Baruch College in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, and the Heat’s Big 3 left together, shoulder to shoulder. “Let’s roll, let’s roll!” called LeBron James into the gymnasium’s echo, designer headphones propped high.
Dwyane Wade sported his playoff beard. Chris Bosh, ducking to not bump the top of the door frame, wore a T-shirt that read, “The Heatles.”
Miami remains the NBA’s rock stars and royalty because of these three players and the two consecutive championship parades they have made bloom on Biscayne Boulevard.
One loss shouldn’t change anything — the Heat should be above the knee-jerk doubt — but this year is a little different.
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The doubts are just waiting for a loss, any loss. The doubters are hungry for it.
Moments earlier, surrounded by media, LeBron had been asked whether this year’s Miami team is as good as the previous two that won it all. It’s funny. That line of questioning, prevalent during an erratic regular season, had been respectfully hibernating as the Heat through six games stood as the last unbeaten team in this NBA postseason.
All it took was one loss for the familiar theme to awaken and come knocking again.
“I feel good about our team,” is how James chose to respond Sunday. “I’m on the team!”
The Heat does not seem overly concerned that Brooklyn won here Saturday to make Miami’s second-round series lead 2-1, and why would it be overly concerned? The Heat has the earned arrogance of a championship pedigree, twofold. Resolve in place of panic, solutions in response to questions — that has been the DNA of the Big 3 era Heat.
You don’t panic over one loss, a loss on the road, a loss on a night when your opponent enjoyed the aberration of a club-playoff-record 15 three-point baskets.
You don’t panic over one loss when you are the reigning champ, and when you have the best player in the world no matter what the latest MVP vote said.
No time to panic
You don’t panic. You just don’t. Especially because you have been here before.
This road has never been easy for Miami. That bears remembering.
It sure wasn’t easy that first season, one that began with LeBron being nationally vilified and ended in a humbling 2011 Finals defeat.
“The backlash we got surprised me,” he said Sunday. “It changed me.”
It wasn’t easy for the Heat en route to the 2012 title, either. Miami in the second round trailed the Pacers 2-1 after a 19-point loss, with Game 4 in Indiana. In the conference finals Miami lost three consecutive games to the Celtics and faced Game 6 elimination in Boston. Then Miami lost the opener of the Finals at Oklahoma City.
It wasn’t easy en route to the 2013 crown, either. One year ago in this round Miami lost Game 1 to the Bulls. A contentious, seesawing conference final versus Indiana came down to a Game 7. Then in the Finals, Miami trailed San Antonio 1-0, and 2-1 and 3-2.
The hard road has given the Heat perspective, maturity, tough skin.
The Nets’ mouthy Paul Pierce got in LeBron’s ear as Saturday’s game ended. James just glared, perhaps making a mental note to save his reply for Monday night’s Game 4.
“It’s not war, it’s just basketball,” James said Sunday, of any tensions in their old rivalry now in its fifth postseason encompassing a combined four different teams.
LeBron was more interested Sunday in a shoutout on Mother’s Day. He was born to a 16-year-old mom who remains a huge, positive influence.
“How she found the strength, dignity and loyalty to show me at that age, I have no idea, “ he said.
Nobody is like LeBron James, the Akron, Ohio, phenom who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager, his high school games nationally televised.
“I’ve been a celebrity since I was 15, basically half my life,” he said Sunday, not bragging, just fact. “I don’t know anybody who’s gone through what I have.”
That background and perspective, and all that this team has been endured and survived, help James and his team put a loss in its proper context, even as some do not.
Six consecutive playoff wins to start this postseason applied mascara and blush, covering the little cracks and imperfections. They were still there, just hidden. Smoothed over. Because winning excuses all.
Nothing has changed now that the Heat has finally lost. We aren’t seeing them differently now, just more clearly. Without the makeup.
Brooklyn must win here again Monday night and even this second-round series to put the Heat in any peril. If Miami wins — as it has nine consecutive times following a playoff loss in the Big 3 era — an all-is-well order will be restored. And that return to normalcy (judge pounds gavel, says, “Order on the court!”) might be expected.
No matter Monday’s result, though, the question about Miami will persist as it chases a three-peat, a question there after six consecutive wins, too:
Is this Heat team as good as the previous two championship squads?
Is this Heat team good enough to reign again?
The very question suggests the whispered answer: (No. It doesn’t seem so.)
Some of that feeling is borne of the rise of the West, where San Antonio and Oklahoma City both would have home-court advantage against Miami.
No, the Heat feels weaker because owner Micky Arison would not agree to spend enough to keep Mike Miller, the one departed player Miami misses most, every game, still. Every time the Heat struggles on three-pointers, as it has much of the season and did in Saturday’s loss, the void left by Miller is palpable.
A few cracks
And Miami feels weaker because club president Pat Riley’s two big offseason decisions — signing Greg Oden and Michael Beasley — have failed. That can fairly be said right now. Neither of the two guys brought in to make the Heat younger, bigger and stronger off the bench is contributing at a time of season when players you can’t trust disappear.
Beasley, young and healthy, is a defensive liability for a franchise that thinks of itself as defense first. Oden, young and with the size Miami covets and needs, remains supported by knees he can’t quite trust. (Miami could have used a “big” like Oden in Game 3 when Nets center Andray Blatche got hot.)
Still good enough?
So chasing a three-peat is a team one year older, missing its top three-ball artist, and absent the two guys brought in to improve it.
The issue surrounding Miami is not whether it can survive the Nets in the second round. One loss has not validated that doubt.
The question of the Heat is bigger, broader. It is whether this team is as good … and good enough.
The question is fair, but so was LeBron’s answer on Sunday — “I feel good about our team. I’m on the team!” — because that answer is a fist with two championship rings on it.
The Heat will continue to be the NBA’s rock stars and royalty until the moment some other team proves they are not.
You want what LeBron has, Brooklyn or Indiana or Oklahoma City or San Antonio?
Come and take it, if you can.