Posted Dec 25 2011 8:26PM
DALLAS -- As victory laps go, this one had all of the electricity of a guy out walking his dog.
Instead of fireworks and flash, there was merely an assembly line's hum of a factory shift. The smoke and strobe lights and the dancing bass beat of pulsing music were replaced by the sound of men at work.
Oh, the Mavericks took time out to remember and salute the first NBA championship in the 31-year history of the franchise by raising a banner to the rafters before the opening tip. But it was a day more notable for the Heat raising a flag of humility into the breeze.
Seventeen months after he lit the fuse to the most bombastic season in league history by counting up the total of championships -- "one, two, three, four, five..." -- that he intended to amass along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron James counted off the only number that mattered.
"One," he said.
That's how many games the Heat have won in the long-awaited, lockout-delayed season, even if the 105-94 win over Dallas in which they led by as many as 35 points felt like a handful.
It was, of course, a different Mavericks team than the one that joyously danced and celebrated last June, missing six different members of the roster.
But more important, even though they are mostly the same cast of central characters at their core, the Heat just might be radically different too.
Less noisy. Less bombastic. Humbled.
"We're a better team right now to start the season than we were last year to start the season in Boston," James said. "That's all."
It's a far cry from the start to last season when every move, every head fake, every dribble on every court made it seem like the Heat were the first ones to ever think of pumping air into the basketball.
It was the kind of attention that pushed Miami's image -- positive and negative -- way up into the stratosphere, but eventually starved them of breathing room and oxygen when they fell to Dallas in The Finals. And, of course, no one made a bigger splat than James.
"You can never let it go all the way," he said. "I beat myself up about a lot of stuff. I didn't talk to nobody or say nothing to anybody for three weeks, just moped around and let it sink all in until it's time to re-focus.
"I beat myself up about The Finals, of course. I was glad I was able to get back up out of it and get back to work. As a competitor, I never like to return to a season the same player as last year or the year before...It's time for me to get better."
James worked on post moves with Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. He worked on improving his mid-range jump shot. And it seemed at least for the first game he worked on refusing to settle for anything that wasn't near or going toward the basket. James not only rang up 37 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished six on the Mavs, but he also got to the free throw line 19 times and neither he nor Wade attempted a single shot from behind the 3-point arc.
"That's something we talked about, being more aggressive and getting into our game," Wade said.
At their best, the Heat's game is like a runaway locomotive -- fast, powerful and with the potential for destruction. It was always that way when the three free agent friends chose to cast their fortunes and their futures together last season. But it took them a year and the public flogging they took for blowing a 2-1 lead in The Finals to make them understand that climbing a ladder is best done one step at a time.
A year ago, the Heat spent more time working on being overly defensive to any criticisms of their hubris than working on learning to fit the pieces together on the floor. A season ago, everything was a reaction to the outside rather than a preemptive action from within.
"If you looked at this team from a distance last season, you couldn't help but to form opinions about what was going on in this locker room," said veteran Shane Battier, who signed on as a free agent.
"But being here now, I can tell things are different than the perception. This is a team that cares about each other, cares about coming together and cares about getting better."
James has talked openly about getting back to "being myself" letting go of all the outside distractions and forces.
"It was tough last year for him," Wade said. "Even though at times we felt comfortable and were playing our game, other times we reverted back to stepping on each other's toes.
"Now it's back to basketball, knowing we're even better when we're both aggressive, both attacking. I think he's just done a great job being a student of the game this year and coming back more comfortable and more confident.
"All I can go off is Game 1 of the season. (He was) very aggressive and not necessarily concerned with what anyone is saying about him. He's gonna have to do it all year. He's one of the most scrutinized players that has ever played in any sport. It's his job not to worry about it and his job to go out there be one of the most talented players to ever to play this game."
It's a job that will be vastly different all season for the Heat if the fireworks give way to just fire.
"We're not flying under the radar," Wade said. "The Heat will never fly under the radar. But it's not as much scrutiny right now. Let CP get it with the Clippers."
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