Posted Dec 3 2010 1:10AM - Updated Dec 3 2010 6:13AM
CLEVELAND -- The mistake to make would be to take too much out of Miami 118, Cleveland 90 Thursday. The Heat were dominant, but the Cavs also laid down before Miami and LeBron James in a truly pathetic performance, laughing and joking with the guy that came in and dropped a season-high 38 on their collective beans. Former teammate or no, not cool. Supposedly defending the honor of this oft-psychically injured city, the Cavaliers allowed the marauding Heat to pillage, plunder, take City Hall, run the Jolly Roger up the flagpole and remane this town LeBronia.
So it was just one game, in a week where Miami has feasted on inferior opponents. But there was something in how Miami played that the rest of the league should notice, and hope can't be duplicated.
If the Heat can remember what this felt like, to focus completely on an opponent as a team, to play the kind of defense that leads to easy baskets -- privately, Miami knows it needs 25 fast-break points per game -- and, most importantly, to defensive rebound, the Heat could become the team everyone expected it to be. For 48 minutes, in the midst of a hostile, angry, loud crowd, they bonded as they haven't bonded all season.
"They want to win this for him," a Heat official said before tipoff. "They want to do it for Z [center Zydrunas Ilgauskas], too. But they really want to win it for him."
So they ignored the guy selling "The Three My Egos" t-shirts on the corner of 4th and High, and the father and daughter who were shredding James jerseys as a charity for the Cleveland Food Bank, raising $1,500 in a matter of hours, and the scalpers who were moved into a pen on the far side of the Q, out of view of much of the general public, herded like cattle onto a grassy strip on Huron, doing little business. "You used to be able to get $60 or $70," one of them lamented. "Now, you're losing money. It's not even worth it."
They ignored the "Quitness" placards, and the yellow shirts worn throughout the Q that had James' face under the heading "The Lyin' King" -- the work of George Vlosich III, the guy whose Etch-a-Sketch drawings of James a few years ago became a You Tube hit, and the four guys who drove five hours from Toronto to join in on the fun ("we came to boo Bosh, too," said one), and the chant that I can't repeat that rang through the arena for much of the first quarter, and the one that can be repeated: "Akron Hates You!"
They did it with defense, and they did it with bad intentions, and it left James exhausted, unable to sleep as he normally does easily before a game.
"So many things went through my mind," James said afterward. "It was a combination of a lot. I have nothing bad to say about these fans, at all. Seven great years. We grew from the year before I got here, from a 17-win season, to the last two years I was here, to being the best team in the league in the regular season. So I understand their frustration. And I was frustrated also, because we didn't accomplish what we wanted to at the end of the day."
On Thursday, they accomplished something real. The question is whether it can become permanently fixed in the group cortex of this team.
When Pat Riley took over as coach in Miami in 2006, he created one of his greatest motivational ploys -- the "15 Strong" concept. Throughout the season, players put cards and other objects into a ever-expanding bowl in the Heat's locker room, all of which had the "15 Strong" slogan written on them. The message was obvious: we do this together. And that team, with a young Dwyane Wade throwing his body around and drawing foul after foul, came from behind to beat Dallas and win the title in six improbable games.
Four years later, the Heat aren't the underdogs anymore. (Is "overdogs" a word?) Miami is one of the most vilified teams in recent sports memory, getting everyone's best shot. But Thursday, the Heat took the black hat, wore it, reveled in it. Thursday had the feel of a 15 Strong performance.
"In a way, yeah," Wade said as he neared the Heat's bus afterward. "Fifteen Strong was all about togetherness. And tonight was all about family. I think we did a good job coming out here. We played our most complete game. It wasn't about egos. Even though LeBron scored 38, and I scored some points, it wasn't about a lot of one-on-one. It was about moving the ball, moving the ball, then getting the best shot. And I thought we did that. That's going to be the way we play going forward, and hopefully it works for us."
For all of the bombastic talk about who has to defer to who, and whose ego is bigger, and the endless replays of James bumping into Erik Spolestra in the Mavericks game last week, the truth about this Heat team is pretty simple. When Wade and James defensive rebound, Miami is close to unbeatable. The reason Miami has gotten off to such an uneven start is simple -- the Heat have been a sporadic defensive unit, capable of breakdowns that cost it games. And its two best players, James and Wade, weren't doing the unglamorous work of getting into passing lanes, causing deflections and ending possessions with defensive boards often enough.
"If you want to be a rock star," one of Miami's officials said afterward, "then you have to perform like a rock star."
"Everyone agrees that Miami has to play faster. Spoelstra knows it. So do the players. But you can't run if you're always taking the ball out of the basket -- "not unless you do some Paul Westhead (bleep)," the Miami official said. That's what Spoelstra has been harping on the last few days. It requires being in tip-top condition, something that, let's say, the Heat players may still be working on. (It's South Beach, people. South Beach.) And It requires constant focus, especially the way the Heat defends.
Miami asks its bigs to close out hard on shooters, especially on the easy corner threes that teams love to take. That leaves the Heat's smaller, perimeter players frequently wrestling with fours and fives in the paint. Some nights, it'sl a mismatch, especially given Miami's relative lack of size across the board. But that's the deal--Wade and James have to get those "engage rebounds," as Juwan Howard called them afterward. If any undersized players can do it, it's those two.
"When they get the basketball, with their speed and quickness in transition, with the ball in their hands, it puts the defense on their heels and gives us a huge advantage," Howard said. "They're in a class with Kobe, the Rudy Gays, the Carmelo Anthonys of the world. Those guys are special athletes."
Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but even before the game, Spoelstra had the look of a guy that was onto something.
It was like the scene in The Dirty Dozen when Franco, one of the condemned men dragooned into a suicide mission behind enemy lines, became furious that the inmates had to shave in cold water, while the officers got hot water for their grooming and food, and started screaming how "we" weren't gonna take it anymore. In a flash, 12 individuals became one unit, working together. (No, it didn't end well for most of them, and especially Jim Brown, and yeah, I'm still a little salty about it.)
The Heat thought they knew what was coming, but had played like they were surprised they were on everyone's bleep list, and getting everyone's best shot on a nightly basis. Now, they know. For them to win the multiple championships James predicted they would on that stage in July, they've got to bring it. Every night.
"I anticipated the worst," Spoelstra said, "and it's met every bit of that anticipation. But we're not running away from any of these expectations, and the pressure. I still stand by my comment. I think this is good for us, and I mentioned that to the team. And there's times where we don't like each other, you know? That can be a good thing as well, because there are a lot of times where it's good. And you only really get to know each other, and are tested, when you've seen both sides. And you're able to respond and move on."
Maybe, finally, everyone can move on.
"It's too bad he left," said Jim Connell, the manager of Flannery's, a local watering hole down the street from the Q. His place was packed, like it used to be. "But I think I can say for a lot of people, that we've had enough about this. It's become tiresome. He's gone. We're done with it."
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