Strengthened Miami Heat puts the rest of America on high alert

After all the laughter and mocking and criticism after all the doubt and fear that knocked on the locker-room door, trying to bust in while being pushed back after all the hyperventilating, unreasonable, knee-jerk coverage that had the entire blueprint being dismantled just seven games ago something else sweeps over Basketball America now. It is quieter and less angry and no longer sounds much like laughter, rest assured. It is more of a wincing, uh-oh fear that comes with the realization that this particular storm has not passed but rather is just now finally gathering strength.

Because now Miami knows how to do it. Because now LeBron James, the only player in the sport without a single hole in his game, owns the keys that unlock everything. Because now doubt has been knocked aside by proof. Because now Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh know their roles. Because now veterans have seen what Shane Battier did at the end, and are going to want to go out like that, too. Because now Miami knows it can get through its conference to the title games even when trailing with one of its All-Stars out. Because, ho-hum, now road playoff games against three Hall of Famers and a three-time All-Star, on the brink of elimination in Boston, produce not shrinkage but rather 45 and 15 from the man-beast who carries them. Because now imagine what happens when Wade has rest and two healthy knees again.

Because losing brought them together closer than they’ve ever been and then winning brought them closer together than even that. Because the past two years, when they were weaker, are harder than anything these guys will have to endure going forward, when they are stronger. And because the teams that know what Miami knows — like the Celtics and Spurs — are too old to do anything about what is coming. And because the teams that don’t yet know what Miami knows are too young to counter it, as Oklahoma City just proved. Yes, today is Miami’s time. But tomorrow is, too.

Look at what you did, America. You created a monster that broke out of its shackles, roared and has shaken this entire city all weekend with the fury it unleashed, making children like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden scurry out of its swaggering path. Maybe Bosh, who has never wanted to play center, doesn’t go to center, and maybe Wade, who doesn’t like to be a No. 2, doesn’t happily accept being a No.2, and maybe James, who admits he doesn’t like banging in the post, doesn’t spend this entire postseason there if not for all your echoing laughter.

Your mocking began because of the perceived presumption and arrogance in that welcoming celebration two years ago, but my how the view changes through America’s eyes now that Miami has morphed from entitled to titled. Miami has been a target until now, but now everyone else in the league becomes that. How is confidence built, in any walk of life? By stacking successes atop each other. America and the league and the Mavericks won last year, and there was comfort in that, and it was good for the game and for ratings, but here’s the thing: That was your best chance. Pat Riley always thought the first year of this little project of his would be the weakest. Miami just dismantled an Oklahoma City team that was, in every statistical efficiency ranking, better than the Dallas one Miami lost against last year.

“All around criticism and credit, what you’ll find is fame,” Riley said as Thursday became Friday. “Gotta watch out for that.” He was offering warnings even amid champagne spraying and locker-room embraces because Riley has always cautioned that the problems between egos and stars, whether it be Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant or Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, come after the winning, not before. “Gotta watch for that,” he repeated, but Miami has an advantage there, too, because the champion atop the organization will be the guiding hand watching for that. Everyone wants credit, validation, glory, and it can be a fight, but Wade and James have an uncommon friendship. With rare self-awareness for an athlete — athletes tend to be terrible self-evaluators; they have to be; the delusion serves them in a way that weakness doesn’t (see Mario Chalmers, most confident player on the team) — Wade realized during this season that he had to help, not lead. That didn’t get figured out in the first year of this project. Failure had to be the light.

In 2006, when Wade was winning a title being what James is now, Riley kept calling plays for Wade, but Wade would improvise, doing whatever the hell he wanted. Eventually, Riley called time out, stopped calling plays and, instead of reprimanding Wade with the need for ego and control, the leader-coach asked him, “How can I help you? Tell me how I can help you.” That’s what dawned on Wade this year with one of his best friends in the world. How can I help? Tell me how I can help.

Wade was asked as he ran off the court after Game 5, giddy, whether he was happier for himself or for James. “Both,” he screamed. “Equally. I’m so happy for him. But I’m happy as hell for me, too. It has been such a long road.”

James talked in tranquil tones through this postseason run, and it was illuminating. Very calmly, as question after question was lobbed, he kept saying that he would be OK with the result, no matter what it was, as long as he was giving maximum effort. Would losing be a failure? No, he said. A disappointment, yes. But not a failure. Only giving less than his best would be a failure, and that wasn’t one of the options, which is how it came to be that he had to be carried off the court with cramps. What he was saying was reasonable, if not popular, and it is what confidence sounds like, tranquil and firm, a comfort in knowing that your best is not only good enough but better than anyone else’s. James seemed to get comfortable with that idea, and give voice to it, long before the rest of us did, which suggests that he knew what was brewing inside him before he uncaged it for all to see. It was a breathtaking pleasure to watch, that growth, one of the most masterful runs we’ve ever seen from an athlete, any era, any sport.

And now would be a good time to remind America that James just won his first title at the same age Michael Jordan did, after the same kinds of sufferings. Jordan, too, heard the character-smearing allegations, believe it or not, that he couldn’t win the big one, and he, too, had to fail and fall before he was strong. You can make a good argument that James is a better rebounder, passer and defender than Jordan was — a better all-around player, in other words — and not have it be blasphemy. What you saw in that final game, when James told his teammates in a pregame huddle that Oklahoma City had no earthly idea what the Heat was about to unleash, was James making Mike Miller and Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole into his Paxson and Kerr. What James just did, this season, this postseason, compares favorably to even the best year on Jordan’s résumé.

Miller laughed about it afterward, smile stuck on his face. With three fouls in the first half, and Cole at the scorer’s table to replace him, Miller waved off both Cole and Erik Spoelstra and told them that he would be staying in the game because he was feeling it and because James was finding him. Finally, for only the second time in a Heat uniform, the other being a meaningless regular-season game against Toronto when Wade was out and Miller scored 32 points, the old, broken veteran was comfortable. Truth be told, when he signed here for less money, he thought a lot of nights would feel like Game 5 did, a plethora of open shots given to him by the unselfish James and Wade. Alas, he was too hurt to capitalize until the very end, after Battier and Chalmers already had. But now all these partying pieces move ahead together, bonded, fortified, all of them having replaced the belief that they might do it with the knowledge that they did.

Quite the leap, this one, from being called mentally soft to being championship hard. Basketball America, so very quiet now, must brace itself for what is happening in Miami now. This storm makes its way down Biscayne Boulevard at 11 a.m. Monday, this entire area shaking and quaking around what is gathering, and the rest of the country shuffles inside and grabs the storm shutters, preparing for what is gathering off in the distance but can be seen approaching clearly on the horizon.

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