The new-look Heat already had LeBron James’ attention, way back in July. When asked by my co-host on Sirius XM radio which teams he believed had bettered themselves the most in the offseason, he immediately mentioned his former one.
“I think Miami is doing some great things,” James said then. “They drafted the kid out of Duke, [Justise] Winslow. I think he’s going to be a really good player. They’ve added some big pieces.”
He referenced the free agent additions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green, the re-signing of Goran Dragic, the return of Chris Bosh, and the presence of Dwyane Wade.
“They’re going to be a contender,” James said.
The question, of course, was whether, after all those heady preseason Heat hopes, the circumstances of the season itself rendered the Heat done as a contender, done as a threat to James’ five-year Eastern Conference reign, done at least until another offseason remake. Done after failing to find a fit early in the season, done after stumbling to the All-Star break at 29-25, done after its best two-way player (Bosh) was again sidelined with a blood clot.
Well, the Heat is not done. Not done after winning 11 of 16 since the break. Not done after dominating the Cavaliers 122-101 on Saturday night, dropping James to 0-3 in Miami in the games he has played and the Cavaliers to 0-4 here since his return. When James left for good, late in the third quarter, he had scored 26 of Cleveland’s 61 points, some on spectacular fadeaways.
And the Heat still led by 29.
“We just didn’t play our game,” James said. “We allowed them to play their game, and they took it to us.”
None of this means Miami will be favored in a playoff series, not when it can reach no higher than third in the East standings, and the Cavaliers are certain to be first or second.
It just means that if the Heat had James’ attention this summer, it undoubtedly does now, after an obliteration from nearly the opening tip, after James walked to the Heat bench to hug Udonis Haslem and assistant David Fizdale — and in the clearest sign yet of continued thawing — coach Erik Spoelstra.
While the Heat has had organizational stability for decades, it has had considerable turnover on the floor the past two years, as president Pat Riley has had to continually revamp to replace the past decade’s least replaceable player. After the in-season trades of Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers, only Haslem and Wade remain from James’ Big 3 era.
But even if James doesn’t know this group as intimately as he knew that one, he surely knows enough to take it increasingly seriously.
After all, James has repeatedly called his “brother” Wade “one of the best to ever do it,” and there was Wade, looking again like Wade, scoring 24 points with a bountiful bag of tricks, while becoming the eighth active player, and just 41st in history, to total 20,000 for a career — and then seeming to shed a couple of tears during a video tribute.
“It’s just a testimonial to what type of guy he is, what type of professional he’s been, what type of leader he’s been,” James said. “Congratulations to him. It’s big time. It’s big time for the brotherhood.”
James openly expressed his desire to bring veteran Joe Johnson to Cleveland, becoming enamored with Johnson’s versatility and professionalism during their time together on U.S. and All-Star teams, but Johnson chose a bigger role in Miami. And there was Johnson, playing a poised, complete game, bodying James on defense while making four three-pointers on the other end.
James praised the acquisition of Stoudemire, who gave Miami a solid dozen minutes, scoring eight points with five rebounds. He spoke highly of the re-signing of Dragic, who had 18 points and 11 assists, doing everything but dunking on a fast-break opportunity, cracking up Heat teammates by opting for the layup.
And James knows the Heat is a resourceful, proven organization, which is one of the reasons he picked Miami in 2010, and that has been evident again as the Heat has cobbled together a dynamic bench out of two rookies and a vagabond center, with Winslow, Josh Richardson (19 points on 6-of-9 shooting) and Hassan Whiteside (16 points, 13 rebounds) propelling the blitz that put the game away early.
He might know all of this better than he knows his own team right now, even as it still sits first in the East, largely because of his skill and will. Make of this what you will, but in the four seasons that the Heat went back to the previous professional cities of James and Bosh, Miami was 13-1, losing once in Cleveland, never in Toronto. Sure, the “Band of Brothers” theme was hokey, but it also seemed to be heeded. Maybe it was because of playing a third game in four nights, but the Cavaliers showed little spirit, from start to finish, Saturday.
“He knows we’re coming for him,” Wade said early in the season.
James knows they’re not done.
“They’ve opened up the floor a lot more now, with them being able to put Luol [Deng] at the four, and it definitely benefits Dragic for sure, he looks to play in the open floor, it definitely helps their tempo,” James said. “And then the kid coming off the bench, Josh Richardson, really gives them a boost as well. They’ve been playing some really good ball lately.”
Good enough not to be done, not as a contender nor a threat.
He knows it. More importantly, so do they.