Dwyane Wade got it right when he said the Miami Heat has to fight a tendency toward boredom as the two-time defending champion pursues a three-peat.
The Heat has to play like a hungry team, not a sated one.
After a somewhat businesslike banner-raising ceremony Tuesday, Wade took the initiative to raise the temperature inside AmericanAirlines Arena, where fans and players were acting too fat and happy for his taste. Just before tipoff of Season Four with the Big 3, Wade hopped around the court waving his arms with emotional gusto, yanking cheers from the throats of spectators and psyching up his teammates.
Those gaudy diamond rings are nice, he seemed to be indicating, but let’s concentrate on winning something intangible and much more meaningful — Miami’s piece of basketball history.
After 297 games over the past three years, the trek began anew with an opening night 107-95 victory over the Chicago Bulls and a sample of what the Heat must overcome if it is to join the Lakers and Celtics as the only franchises to advance to four consecutive NBA Finals. Getting there will be grueling enough; then there’s the challenge of becoming only the sixth team to win three titles in a row.
Miami’s opponent, the relentless Bulls, could be the Heat’s biggest impediment to the Finals, although they didn’t look it at the start of the seven-month NBA marathon. Derrick Rose played in a real game for the first time in 18 months and appeared confident on his surgically repaired knee. He showed glimpses of his blink-and-he’s-gone quickness, such as on a stutter step drive through the Heat defense and a coast-to-coast weave. But he is not there yet with his lift or timing or defense.
Chicago is counting on Rose not only to be good as new but better as a shooter and passer. There’s no reason to think he won’t be, which makes the Bulls a totally different team than the one the Heat defeated in five games in the playoffs.
Plus, Joakim Noah was playing on a bad ankle in that series, and Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich were out. Tom Thibodeau is still among the best three coaches in the league, and he’s got a versatile cast to work with.
Tuesday’s October preview, which featured a 25-point Heat lead on Norris Cole’s acrobatic breakaway jam, was probably more deceiving than revealing. That’s why Wade didn’t want his teammates to get too comfortable wearing their special gold-trimmed uniforms.
The Heat still does not have a center, a vulnerability that will continue to be exploited. Offseason acquisitions Greg Oden and Michael Beasley are unlikely to be revelations, or even regular cogs in the rotation.
The opposition, however, is focused on dethroning the Heat.
Indiana’s Pacers pushed Miami to the edge even without their top player, Danny Granger. Pacers’ bigs Roy Hibbert and David West gave Miami fits by grinding away at their weakness.
The Brooklyn Nets enriched their roster with old Heat rivals Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And that’s just the East. In the West, the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan earned much of the nation’s sympathy when they couldn’t finish off the Heat, and their losses in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals eat at them every day, coach Gregg Popovich said. Oklahoma City, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers will be improved.
“It’s going to be tough because all the teams got better,” LeBron James said, reeling off the names of 10 of them. “But there’s nothing that can surprise us. We’ve seen it all.”
So Miami has to get better, too, a tall task when James is in his prime and capable of dominating at will. Yet he displayed the midrange jump shot he’s been honing as part of his ongoing project to diversify his game. Wade tried out a couple of the post-up moves he’s been polishing in an effort to evolve at age 31 and return to his former efficiency levels. Chris Bosh has an opportunity to assert himself consistently as an unusually equipped outside-inside force after frequently drifting off during last year’s run. And the Heat bench has the role of seamlessly moving in and making big plays — such as Ray Allen’s Game 6 three-pointer for the ages — on command.
Coach Erik Spoelstra has the difficult job of finding motivation and maintaining harmony.
The Heat should have enough challenges to avoid complacency. When Bosh talked about Tuesday’s title celebration, he admitted that he felt “butterflies” watching dramatic replays from the Finals, but added that the team’s competitive drive demands forward – not backward — thinking.
“Honestly, I’m a little tired talking about it,” he said. “I’m trying to wrap my head around this season.”
Those rings are mighty heavy. Best to keep them in the drawer or safety deposit box until June.