Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Work ethic is Heat’s underappreciated strength

Indiana players and fans here wear T-shirts that proudly declare: BLUE COLLAR. The motto would underline a supposed contrast between the lunch-pail ethic of the small-market, underdog Pacers and the star-driven, big-city Heat.

Pickup trucks vs. limos, right? Working dogs vs. thoroughbreds.

That contrast is perhaps understandably perceived by many.

It also is entirely manufactured — the biggest myth attached to this championship Miami team as it tries Tuesday here to move within five victories of a repeat NBA title.

The continuing misconception about the Heat is nationwide, and not without basis, if all you choose to do is look superficially.

The outward reputation was minted that moment in July 2010 when LeBron James royally announced he was taking his talents not to the Heat or to Miami, but “to South Beach.” The assembling of the Big 3 instantly cast Miami as the best team money could buy. The urban-hip, Club LIV atmosphere at home games accented the idea the Heat was whatever the opposite was of “blue collar.”

This was Showtime East, a party in sneakers, all flash and fast breaks made for the highlight reels. Chicago’s Joakim Noah gave voice to how a lot of people regarded the Heat:

“Hollywood as hell.”

Even noted basketball expert Sarah Palin, attending Miami’s Game 3 win here Sunday, likely spoke for many outside Miami watching this series in saying, “The Pacers have this tenacious, scrappy, underdog persona that everybody’s going to root for.”

The old misperceptions are pushed away, though, a little at a time, replaced by elbows and sweat. Gradually, increasingly, the Heat should be seen as a team of great adaptability.

“Whatever it takes,” as coach Erik Spoelstra reminded again Monday.

Miami is still and foremost the top-heavy team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as a starting point, but here is what must be debilitating to opponents.

While you cannot out-talent or out-skill the Heat, you cannot outwork or out-want them, either. (Ever notice that Heat and Heart are very close to the same word?)

You cannot out-blue collar this team. Just when you think of Miami as represented by a spectacular alley-oop dunk, it is diving for a loose ball to remind that the franchise culture is rooted in defense first.

The Heat does not do underdog, no, but Miami concedes nothing in the arena of tenacious and scrappy.

This thoroughbred can be a mudder when needed.

This limo can go off road.

Game 3 Sunday — the 114-96 win launched by that near-perfect 70-point, one-turnover first half — might have been the ultimate example of the chameleon Heat being up to whatever situation and opponent call for.

Look at what has Miami up 2-1 in games and in charge again in this Eastern Conference finals.

Udonis Haslem, the ultimate uncelebrated yeoman, scoring 17 points on 8-for-9 shooting. Haslem, the enforcer, chewer of mouthguards. Haslem, NBA all-blue collar if the vote is right — but the unlikely offensive spark this night.

And Chris “Birdman” Andersen, with nine big points off the bench on 4-for-4 shooting making him a surreal 35 for 41 this postseason. Nobody who has taken that many shots in one postseason has shot that well. Ever. Not Michael Jordan, not anybody. The baskets are a bonus, though. Bird is there for his energy, his rebounds, his attitude.

“We don’t run a play for him — ever,” Spoelstra said.

The fan favorite Andersen has become in Miami sees its polar extreme on the road. (Guess a walking tattoo with a Mohawk is an easy target.)

“Even before the game started [Sunday] they were booing me,” Bird said a day later. “I love it!”

Birdman muscles in his shots close to the basket, while Haslem’s hot hand made easy work of jumpers in the 17-foot range. And when he is sinking those, the paint clears for LeBron. That’s why James worked the low post for five baskets Sunday.

And that, too, is indicative of Miami’s adaptability. The fast breaks and alley oops are more fun, but if you need James to get black-and-blue for his shots … done.

And if you double-team LeBron on the low post, there is an open man somewhere. And nobody finds open man better than James. And if that open man happens to be hot as Haslem was Sunday?

“Then they’re the most difficult offense in the NBA,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said Monday.

Andersen and Haslem are two of Miami’s grunts, the role-player worker bees. When players such as them or Ray Allen or Shane Battier or Norris Cole are contributing big, Miami is almost unstoppable.

Vogel refers to Miami’s “big fourth.” He meant the Big 3 is plenty to handle, but that the Heat reaches that whole other level when there is a “big fourth” on a given night — like Haslem was Sunday, like Andersen has been all postseason, like Allen or Battier are when having a hot night on three-point shots.

Spoelstra said there was “a team conversation” after the Game 2 loss in which the coach talked about “getting to our identity,” which he described as, “Attack aggressively and find opportunities in the paint, at the rim and at the free-throw line.”

If that sounds like a fundamental blue-collar attitude, it is.

The Heat has the mind-set to play it.

They don’t need the T-shirts that say it.

Related stories from Miami Herald