Heat have the recipe for success
MIAMI -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat's new-look band gathered Monday for one final tune-up on the eve of the biggest season in the franchise's 23-year history.
But the tune out overshadowed the tune up entering Tuesday's mammoth season opener against the Boston Celtics.
Moments into Erik Spoelstra's 45-minute team meeting, he learned a quick and painful lesson. It was a positively, pleasantly painful one in a step-aside-and-shut-up-please sort of way.
"I brought out the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and let it sit behind me," Spoelstra said of the NBA's ultimate souvenir the Heat collected for winning their lone championship in 2006. "For the first 10 or 15 minutes, no one looked at me, which was good. These are big-moment players. It inspires them to greatness."
No, not even the addition of James, the league's reigning two-time league MVP, makes the Heat strong enough to break the Chicago Bulls' single-season NBA record of 72 victories. Jordan and Scottie are safe.
And there's no way this Heat team with all of these new faces will develop the necessary rhythm each night and avoid the injuries required to threaten that 33-game regular-season victory streak the Los Angeles Lakers set back in the day with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
But the Heat have all of the ingredients they need to manipulate the Orlando Magic, break through against the Boston Celtics and lay aside the Lakers to give the old Larry a twin companion in the AmericanAirlines Arena trophy case.
Start with talent. Three of the top 10 players in the league all on one roster, all in the prime of their careers. The Lakers and Celtics can't say that. Continue with experience. Wade and Udonis Haslem are the lone two players still around from the Heat's 2006 title team. But the coaching staff and patriarch Pat Riley remain intact. And when Riley was at the head of this level of talent in the past, it usually resulted in a jewelry heist. Except, of course, those seasons when Michael Jordan was lord of the rings.
Make no mistake, the Heat won't be an overnight sensation on the court. They could very well lose Tuesday night's season opener against Boston, as well as Friday's home opener against the Magic and go into the weekend with -- dare we say -- an Armageddon 1-2 start to the season.
But the Heat team you see today, one that clumsily stumbled through the preseason at times and nearly induced a second Cold War by struggling in an exhibition against a Russian team, is not the one that will gain steam, rhythm, chemistry and a title-worthy tenacity by the All-Star break.
That potential for greatness was the reason why James, Wade, Bosh and a solid supporting cast all gathered in Miami during the most controversial free-agency period in league history. And that trophy Spoelstra brought out to show this team was the evidence needed to prove there was a successful blueprint to building a winner here before.
Fresh talent and previous success are just two of the ingredients this team has to form a championship mix. Two more key ingredients were elected team captains on Monday. Wade and Haslem were on the 2006 team that overcame even greater chemistry concerns, attitude issues and turbulence to land Larry.
"It was good seeing the trophy," Wade said Monday. "I had a conversation with Mr. Larry. I asked him where he's been. He's been eluding me. He's been missing for a while now. It was four years ago, but the memories come back when you think about what it took to get that trophy here in Miami, and what it's going to take to get it back one day."
Even those who will be competing with the Heat admit that it will be difficult to deny Miami's push for the ultimate prize.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was the architect behind those Boston defenses that frustrated and smothered LeBron in the playoffs two of the past three seasons. It was also Thibodeau who pushed the defensive buttons that never could shut down Wade in last season's playoffs. Instead, Wade worked himself into a stupor scoring all those points while getting very little support from mannequins disguised as teammates.
But the very thought of having to come up with a tonic to tackle both Wade and James these days is enough to cause migraines. LeBron will reach for his Rosin powder before games against the Bulls. Thibodeau will be grabbing a well-placed bottle of ibuprofen.
"The thing about LeBron and Dwyane is that they can crush you off the dribble, they can shoot and they can pass. That's a lot of pressure," Thibodeau said. "Then you throw Bosh in there, and it's just one big headache after another after another. You don't stop those guys. You just have to decide how much pain you're really willing to deal with."
NBA coach-turned-TV analyst Mike Fratello was considered one of the top defensive minds in the game during stints with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. But the Heat present a championship-level dynamic that nearly left him schematically speechless.
"You start by trying to go and find better players to compete against them," Fratello said. "You've got to give up certain things. You have to try and take certain things away. But as you know, so many of the times you're caught in a one-on-one situation. Best thing you can do is hope they shoot jumpers, turn around and pray that it doesn't go in."
And there's always the throwback version of defense that Bill Laimbeer's old Bad Boys teams with the Detroit Pistons employed. The only problem there is that there are rules against the roughhousing style that those Pistons teams played with on the way to winning two titles.
"They're not that big," Laimbeer, now an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves, said of the one obvious Heat weakness. "LeBron's strong, though. Bosh is not a power player. He's more of a finesse player. So you have to be physical with them and play zone."
Ahh, if it were only that simple. When you mix the eventual chemistry, talent, motivation and leadership, there just might be one too many components for which to contend with this Heat team.
LeBron hasn't met Larry yet, despite several scheduled dates that were nixed over the past few seasons in Cleveland. But he saw what the O'Brien trophy was all about, up close and personal on Monday.
Then, James and the rest of the Heat's newcomers heard an emotional plea from Haslem, a Miami native who told the story of how his late mother lived just long enough to see Riley put this team together before she died in July after a three-year battle with cancer.
The team has since dedicated the season to Debra Haslem.
"There's only one way we're going to get this done, and that's together," Haslem said. "What I want guys to understand is that this is not just about basketball for me. Fact is, I don't want nothing coming between us winning this championship that we can control."
After Haslem spoke, James found himself left without words for one of the rare times behind closed doors with his teammates.
"We wish that she could be around this," James said of a woman he had never met who has suddenly galvanized this team. "After what UD said, it was no need for a follow up. I couldn't follow that up."
The ingredients are in place for the Heat to win it all this season. As Wade once said, "All we need to do is cook it the right way."
LeBron, Chris and Dwyane will accomplish something together that they've struggled the past few seasons to do alone: Feast on the East.
The team. The talent. The timing. The championship. It's all there for the taking. Miami might need a few weeks to simmer its way into dominance. But the Heat have the championship recipe. Soon, Larry will have another dinner date scheduled for late June in South Florida.