Posted May 6 2011 10:56AM
BOSTON -- Saturday, the Heat will return to the scene of the slime, the place where they opened the most anticipated season in years and heard a distinct and direct chant meant just for them:
"Over-rated!" teased the TD Garden crowd back in late October.
LeBron James and his new teammates looked disjointed, unsure and unsteady in Season 1, Game 1, and it showed in an 88-80 loss to the defending East champion Celtics. LeBron seemed to take the loss in stride, though, even if fans and most of the mainstream media did not.
"It's a feeling-out process," he said then. "When you have so many options, it's something I'm not accustomed to, having that many threats out on the court at the same time."
What followed was more of the same: abusive fans, a skeptical media that took glee in the Heat's stumbles, and losing. Finally, a 9-8 record gave Charles Barkley enough material for several monologues. Phil Jackson wondered if it was time for Pat Riley to take over. Because we live in a world that refuses to wait for anything, the Heat was generally written off as a fake contender.
Two weeks after that victory in Boston, the Celtics traveled to Miami and won there as well, prompting Paul Pierce to tweet:
"It was a pleasure taking my talents to South Beach."
Of course, that was then.
This is now: A 2-0 Heat series lead on their "big brothers" and a harmony that didn't exist before.
"We're come a lot farther than where we used to be," said Dwyane Wade.
Well, yeah. How could the Big Three be built in a day when Rome couldn't? It's hard to tell which is the bigger surprise: That few bothered to give the Heat the same courtesy afforded other teams built on the fly. Or that praise is suddenly coming Miami's way in buckets.
This is just a theory, but here goes: Folks were so angry/upset/turned off by the thought of three great players hooking up that expectations were purposely made to be unrealistic. It didn't help when Jeff Van Gundy, an otherwise very astute basketball observer, pegged them for 70-plus wins. People were just waiting for any cracks to show in the Heat's surface, and when they (understandably) appeared, the imperfection was made out to be larger than it was.
Ask yourself: How many times did you read or hear about Chris Bosh being dead weight? Even Bosh himself joked about co-starring in "Two and a Half Men." And what about LeBron and Wade not being able to co-exist, with skills and styles that conflicted?
It wasn't just the "outside noise" as Spoelstra liked to say. Even the Heat themselves contributed to the hysteria, with team meetings and other minor signs of distress.
Well, here's what happened: Miami finished as the No. 2 seed in the East despite losing Udonis Haslem three weeks into the season and never really having Mike Miller. Then the Heat would've swept the Sixers if not for a pair of late 3-pointers by Philly. And now they're making the Celtics look Betty White old.
Wade and LeBron quit trying to appease the other and simply began playing as they did before they became teammates. Bosh quit trying to be what he isn't -- a blue-collar enforcer -- and stayed true to his personality. Finally, the Heat compensated for a weak supporting cast by stepping up the defense, with Wade and LeBron turning steals into personal highlight reels.
"I enjoy the defensive end and getting stops, not allowing my man to have an easy night," explained LeBron. "It's a challenge for myself and D-Wade. We take pride in playing both ends, being two-way players."
LeBron had one of his better statistical seasons, despite playing with a better cast, and finished third in the MVP voting. He led Miami in scoring and assists. Wade averaged 25.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Bosh averaged 18.7 points and led Miami with 8.3 rebounds. All three players had roughly the level of performance that was expected of them.
Also, the harsh treatment on the road made Miami grow an extra shell, blocking out the abuse and developing a mental toughness. No team won more road games than the Heat, something they're reminding anyone who asks about this trip to Boston.
As for the Celtics? While the Heat, at least publicly, are still expressing respect, LeBron added: "I believe we're better than the first three times we played them during the season."
And that's what this is all about, a Miami team that has finally figured it out, and just in time. A team that never should've been dismissed after 15 games.
Or labled a fraud after the season opener in Boston, as the "Over-rated" chants seemed to suggest.
At least one interested observer that night didn't fall into that trap. Doc Rivers said then: "They're going to be great."
We're not completely sure about the great part just yet. There's plenty of basketball left. But we do have a better handle on those chants. Over-rated? Not quite.
More like an over-reaction.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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