The Heat’s season opener against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night will be followed by seven months of preamble.
Coach Erik Spoelstra has issued a gag order on any talk of REPEAT, and Heat players will become as adept at swatting away questions regarding a possible REPEAT as they are at rejecting weak shots.
But, let’s face it, the third season of the Big 3 is all about whether the group can win No. 2.
The 2012 championship banner will be hailed with a celebration inside AmericanAirlines Arena, then attention will immediately turn to the pesky Celtics, who have upgraded their roster in anticipation of meeting the Heat again in the playoffs.
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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh agree that their alliance wasn’t formed to raise just one banner.
James has shed one burden — can he win a championship? — only to shoulder another — can he win multiple championships, as he predicted? Can he narrow the gap between himself and Michael Jordan? The preoccupation with James hasn’t ended, but at least the theme has changed.
It’s a long, long way to June. Littered among games against the Celtics, Bulls, Knicks, Lakers and Thunder, expect a lot of routine games against bad teams. Such is the NBA these days. That’s why playoff time is called the Second Season and why the first 82 games should be called Warmup Season.
But interspersed with the constant speculation about the Heat’s chance of a REPEAT, and whether it will come versus Kobe Bryant and the Lakers or Kevin Durant and the Thunder, there are ways to keep the regular season interesting:
• Monitor development of the Heat’s bigs. Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman will be essential if the Heat meets Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the Finals. Bosh, James and Udonis Haslem need help battling that combo inside while Steve Nash is making his pinpoint passes. It’s time for Anthony and Pittman to break through and show some additional dimensions.
• Watch how James matches up against point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers. Watch his feet. Check out his new post moves. A sky hook modeled on that of his elders. What makes him unique is his ability to play all positions on offense and defense.
• Speaking of positions, that’s another term Spoelstra does not want to hear uttered. The Heat plays “positionless” basketball. Avoid labels. Bosh isn’t necessarily a center; he calls himself “Random Guy.” Shane Battier is more than a 2 or 3 or 4. He’s a hybrid. This is a team of interchangeable parts that thrives on adapting to opponents and compensating for its lack of size. Each player can have multiple personalities in Spoelstra’s system. Let’s see if this leads to identity crisis.
• Spoelstra grew up in Portland. He loves the Oregon Ducks and what football coach Chip Kelly has wrought on the field: Speed kills. Spo wants his Heat to be blazing fast, a strategy that sputtered last season. Can Spoelstra refine the Paul Westhead experiment?
Ray Allen’s adjustment from star starter to sub could be a fascinating psychological study, starting Tuesday when he plays against his former teammates, wearing the uniform of Boston’s recent nemesis. Allen accepted less money to leave Boston, where he felt he was taken for granted, and move to Miami, where he will come off the bench. If his ankle holds up and he blends with Wade on the floor, he will be a key ingredient to a title run.
• The opponents are worth watching. The Lakers are likely to have chemistry problems as the Heat did in 2010-11. Time might be running out for Bryant and Nash, but they understand how to seize the moment. James Harden was traded from Oklahoma City to Houston, a surprising, sad but necessary move if OKC was to avoid the onerous luxury tax NBA commissioner David Stern implemented to promote parity. Can the Thunder be as good without the league’s top sixth man? Can Kevin Durant add some bang to his otherworldly grace? Will Derrick Rose ever be the same? Celtic Green is tougher with Jeff Green. And as for the Knicks, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony continue their search for yin-yang.
• Keep an eye on the Heat’s crack training, medical and conditioning staff. So much depends on health during the rugged, relentless NBA season.
The Heat is not a team of spring chickens. Allen, 37, had offseason ankle surgery. Haslem is 32, Battier, 34. Wade, soon to be 31, had summer knee surgery. Mike Miller, 32, hobbling for two years, has a bad back. Bosh, approaching 29, missed a chunk of the playoffs with an abdominal strain. James, who had little rest time because of the Olympics, turns 28 on Dec. 30. An arduous journey requires an excellent map and strong legs.