Heat may have turned corner in Utah
The Miami Heat showed us something about their character last week. Getting through a tumultuous stretch of a team meeting, an ESPN.com report of player unrest and the drama of LeBron James' return to Cleveland seems to have galvanized the Heat. On Wednesday night, they finally turned this newfound camaraderie they've been talking about into their most impressive victory of the season.
Great teams beat good teams on the road. The Heat were having trouble beating good teams anywhere. They were 3-7 against teams that currently have winning records, including 0-4 on the road. Now Miami can claim a 111-98 victory in Utah, thanks to a defense that turned the normally efficient Utah offense into a dysfunctional mess in the fourth quarter. The Heat have two more big tests this month: Dec. 20 versus Dallas and Dec. 25 at the Lakers.
But we're starting to get a sense of who they are. The first public indication didn't come from James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, and certainly not from the eerily silent Pat Riley. It was from Mario Chalmers. It wasn't a statement to assembled reporters, wasn't a play he made on the court in front of a packed arena. It was a tweet.
"Time to do work," he wrote on his mchalmers15 Twitter account in the final hours before LeBron made his return to Cleveland. "On the way to the gym. Gotta get this win for the homie."
A couple of days later, Chalmers explained that the tweet was him "just wanting everybody to know that we're family. We were going in there as a family and a unit, we were going to try to represent for LeBron and [Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the other former Cavalier on the Heat roster]."
It was, finally, an indication that they were in this together. You couldn't always tell during the first month of the season. You didn't know if they all believed this would work, or had a concept of what they should be doing. In Cleveland they were united for a mission.
"As the game went on I felt, really for the first time, a group playing as brothers," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
They didn't give the Cavaliers a chance to win that game. They provided LeBron with an opportunity to clown his former teammates in front of 20,562 now-unwilling witnesses. They got the win and heard the sweetest sound in sports: silence in enemy territory.
"As soon as we ran out, that building was so loud with boos," Juwan Howard said. "But as the game started, as the game went on, those boos became really, really low.
"It was like an equalizer," he said as he reached out for an imaginary controller, then lowered it. "You have that treble, and it goes down, down, down."
A winning streak that has grown to five games has also diminished the what's-wrong-with-the-Heat rumblings. Maybe they didn't beat anyone that matters (the winless-on-the-road Wizards, the woeful Pistons, the sinking Cavs, the Joe Johnson-less Hawks and the underachieving Bucks), but they also didn't beat themselves. Instead they found themselves. Or found something.
"We're starting to get it," Wade said.
"We're figuring it out," LeBron said.
Perhaps it's as simple as discovering your "it." For the Heat, it means being themselves. They looked so joyless in the first few weeks. They held back, like a guy having dinner with his girlfriend's parents for the first time.
Ever since the Cleveland game they've returned to their natural demeanor. It's LeBron alternating between prancing around the court and heading to the basket like a locomotive. It's Wade getting to his customary spots. It's Bosh drawing a foul against the Hawks and reacting by balling his fists and roaring (yeah, very similar to this).
"Just having fun, that's what it's all about," Bosh said.
They realized that if they're going to be judged, it might as well be on their own terms. There's never been anything like the scrutiny placed on this team. Howard experienced the college version during his sophomore year with the Fab Five at Michigan.
"I see a lot of similarities," he said. "I know in every building we go play in on the road, it reminds me of college. People are excited to watch you play. At the same time, they want to see you fail. I see a lot of quote-unquote haters."
Back then they didn't use that term as often. And there also weren't so many ways to talk about a team.
"With these guys, it's tough," Howard said. "You have Twitter, you have Facebook. Not only that, you have ESPN reporting almost daily. I pick up the USA Today, which is national news, and every day they have a column: Heat Watch. Damn, they didn't do that with the Lakers."
There might as well be a Spoelstra Watch column too, although the winning streak has removed his job status from daily discussion. Riley could make it considerably easier on his hand-picked successor by stating he will not coach the team this season. But he hasn't, even though people in and around the Heat organization insist he doesn't want to coach again.
So the drama will linger, the next round of rumors never more than back-to-back losses away. The discovery process goes on. The intrigue and fascination continues.
The Heat move forward, their steps turning into a strut. Instead of creating headlines, they're creating memorable moments.
"We've been tested," Howard said. "We've been tested in not just ways on the court; we've been tested off the court. Rumors, dissension, [stories of] guys not liking Coach, the game plan he's bringing to the table. There's been a lot of negativity trying to surround this group and trying to divide us. But it hasn't happened. We're so well-connected. Now we're starting to turn the corner and play better as a group."
Consider the corner turned, and the road ahead looking a little more promising when Mike Miller returns next month.
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