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LeBron James setting the tone for Heat

9/30/2010 - NBA LeBron James Miami Heat + more

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- The Miami Heat sported a vast array of new talent on the court in their first two days of practice, from star forward Chris Bosh to sweet shooters Mike Miller and Eddie House, to veteran big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard.

Yet if the Heat fail to win the title this season, none of those newcomers will be the ones taking the arrows. Nor will holdover Dwyane Wade, who already has a championship to his credit, nor coach Erik Spoelstra, who somehow cajoled 47 wins from a limited Heat squad last season.

Like it or not, the focus is on LeBron James. The reigning two-time MVP has received every honor imaginable, with one glaring exception -- he's yet to win a championship, or even a game in the NBA Finals. That was excusable with a Cleveland squad lacking in fellow stars. But playing with two superstars in Miami? That would be a much more difficult failure to dismiss.

The focus is on James for more than that, of course. He was the one who infamously spurned the city of Cleveland on national TV and went to join up with two other superstars. And he's the one who pretty much single-handedly has made the Heat the league's top villain for the 2010-11 season.

If Bosh and Wade had hooked up, nobody would have said boo about it. Throw James into the equation, however, and everybody is taking shots. Partly, I suspect, this is misplaced criticism -- while no sane person can defend the way he dissed Cleveland, the critiques of his decision to join the Heat have required some tortured twists of logic. In particular, former players who made similar moves when given the chance have provided endless torrents of hypocrisy by criticizing James' decision to team up with Bosh and Wade.

The Heat have noticed, and their frustration with being cast as the league's Public Enemy No. 1 before playing a single game is palpable. James, who usually gives away little in interviews, let his guard down a bit on Monday when asked about all the "love" they're getting from the media.

"Is it love?" James shot back. "I can't say that just yet."

Udonis Haslem -- who is only on the team because James, Bosh and Wade took smaller salaries so the Heat could re-sign him -- was equally miffed.

"Since the first day I started playing team sports it was all about sacrificing for a common goal," he said. "You have a situation where it's the perfect example of guys sacrificing for a common goal and we have guys getting criticized for it, especially the big three. I'm going to do everything I can to make those guys look good for the decision they made."

Actually, James seems to be handling that part well enough on his own. During the portions of practice witnessed by the media, he was a dominating force -- a vocal presence on defense and a ball-moving maestro on offense. His five-man squad crushed the three other quintets (Miami has 20 players in camp) in the portion the media watched on Tuesday, even with four end-of-rotation types playing with him.

"The focus, his attitude, how serious he is in practice, has been notable," Spoelstra said. "There's been a very good tone set."

Offensively, James seems to be delighting in the opportunity to be an orchestrator rather than the high scorer Cleveland needed him to be. When his side was on offense James hardly shot the ball, but constantly found role players like House and James Jones open shots on the perimeter. That was without Wade and Bosh on his side; add those two and his passing potency should only multiply.

There were some wow moments, too, such as the fast-break dunk he hammered down on Monday, but the Heat said they can't get too giddy about their good fortune in hitting the free-agent jackpot.

"We've all been looking forward to this," Spoelstra said. "But in terms of us sitting back and opening our jaws in amazement, that time is over. It's time to get to work."

Getting to work for Spoelstra may be a bit easier for James because of Spoelstra's similarities to his former coach in Cleveland, Mike Brown. James notably gave Brown a hat-tip by calling him an "unbelievable" defensive coach -- rumors of tension with James had led to Brown's dismissal after last season. Both James and Ilgauskas (the Heat's other Cleveland import) said the two coaches were similar in their emphasis on defense and the concepts they try to instill. That may not be an accident, as Spoelstra and Brown know each other well going back to their time as rival players in the West Coast Conference.

That's helped allow James to set the tone from day one. While he's joining Wade's team, James' presence was the most palpable in the sessions open to the media, both from a playing and a leadership standpoint. And Wade seems OK with it ... and even more content with James becoming the team's media lightning rod.

"I'm into a different phase of my life," Wade said. "I'm not 21, 22 no more. I'm 28 going into my 30s. I understand -- take some pressure off me. Go ahead, take that extra media attention. I don't really mind."

James' presence has dialed up the intensity across the board. Bosh called it the most intense training camp he's ever had, a sentiment echoed by several other veterans, and all agreed that the newcomer was key in setting the tone.

"He's the reigning two-time MVP," Bosh said. "So nothing will surprise me about his intensity, the way he practices and the way he works. You don't get those things just laying back and chilling."

"He's always been a really hard worker in practice," Ilgauskas said. "Nothing's changed."

As for the Heat, they won't be planning the championship parade just yet. While I suspect most of the invective hurled at them this summer is basically for being killjoys -- they're overwhelming favorites now, with one Vegas book giving them 3-2 odds to win the title -- James said that the Celtics are the favorites in the East and the Lakers are for the league as a whole.

"We haven't done anything yet," James said. "We know that."

And until they do, James is likely to remain in the crosshairs of the public's bizarre Catch-22: He hasn't won a title, but shouldn't have made his chances of winning one so much easier.