For four years, the Heat was the hated and the hunted. Now the team is what it hasn’t been in a long time. The underdog. The franchise trying to recover and stay relevant.
Miami — team and fan base — stepped into the great unknown with Wednesday night’s NBA season opener at the downtown bayside arena, after Chris Bosh earlier in the day had trotted out words to fit the new reality. He said the team was doubted. Overlooked. Disrespected.
What he meant was that the no-doubt, the attention and the respect all had left with LeBron James, followed him, leaving Miami a jilted lover.
“I think we have some proving to do,” Bosh said.
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Wednesday was a good start. And here is what was proved:
There is Life After LeBron.
It won’t be as easy or as exciting, but there is life, and the hope that comes with it.
The sun came Wednesday morning. And as fans left the downtown bayside arena late at night, after this 107-95 win over the Washington Wizards, the moon over Miami was still bright.
This was the first in a long parade of 82 games, but it was not insignificant. The Eastern Conference powerdom may be conceded to LeBron’s Cleveland and to Chicago, but Miami and Washington are two of a handful of teams on the second tier expected to be jockeying for playoff position.
Wednesday affirmed the Heat should be well in that mix.
Especially if what we saw from Bosh proves closer to what will be typical and not an aberration.
He scored 26 points with 15 rebounds, a declarative that he’s up to the task of being Miami’s go-to guy in the void of LeBron. Dwyane Wade said “remember me” with 12 fourth-quarter points leading to 21 total, after he had been kicked in the calf and briefly left the game. The night’s wild card was Norris Cole, celebrating his starting point guard role with 23 points.
It was Bosh’s game, though.
The team in many ways is Wade’s now. The cheers for him in pregame introductions dwarfed the decibels for anybody else.
But in other ways, the Heat and its fortunes now start with Bosh.
Erik Spoelstra had been asked what he expected this season from Bosh, and he did not equivocate.
“Everything,” said the coach. “He has to do it on both ends of the court. He has to lead. I have really enjoyed seeing the transformation. He is really holding guys accountable. He has to do so many things.”
Said Spoelstra of Bosh afterward: “He was fantastic tonight.”
Wednesday doesn’t mean all is well, of course.
The Heat is small. The team is missing its 3-point threat, shooting 9-for-28 from deep in the opener. Mostly, the team is missing the greatest player on earth.
But if 47 combined points from Bosh and Wade is the New Reality, this is a team with a chance for a top-four playoff seed.
The New Reality is as different for the franchise as it is for fans.
The club, with a six-minute video introduced before the opening game, has christened “Heat Nation.”
It is a marketing adjunct to “Heat Lifer,” both seeming like subtle shots at LeBron that want to say the franchise is bigger than any one player, bigger even than the one gone missing.
I could quibble and note that “[Blank] Nation” has sort of already been taken. Or at least Red Sox fans might say so.
I also credit the Heat for moving to rally its fan base in the wake of downsized star power and downsized expectations, although marketing slogans won’t do that nearly as well as performances like Wednesday’s will.
You want downsizing?
Four years ago, LeBron promised “not one, not two, not three…” championships.
Wednesday night, Udonis Haslem told the pregame crowd, “I will say this. This team will play hard.”
For four years, the Heat was the apple-red, eye-candy Maserati everybody wanted to be seen with, the perfect ride for South Beach.
Wednesday night, the team rolled out a new model that, by comparison, may be closer to a sensible sedan.
The new ride will not go as fast.
It certainly will not go as far.
But it can still rev the engine some.
If that was all Wednesday proved, that was plenty for starters.