Posted May 24 2011 10:00AM
MIAMI -- The scene outside American Airlines Arena was surreal, unlike anything witnessed on the inside just minutes earlier.
A small gathering of Heat fans who surrounded the TNT set following Game 3 of the East finals quickly swelled to a throng, and the folks were unified: in white shirts, in spirit and definitely in voice. They were giving the business to a frequent Heat critic, Charles Barkley, tweaking him the way he has done the franchise all season.
They chanted loudly (and often profanely), poking fun at Sir Charles, reminding him he has as many rings as LeBron James (a favorite target of Barkley's barbs).
Word quickly reached the Heat organization, and it was the next-best news of the night, coming a close second to the victory over the Bulls.
"It was great to hear, it was great to see, to my fans, to stick up for us," said Dwyane Wade, with a stern expression on his face. "And at one point, Chuck got a little frustrated with it. Good for them."
Chris Bosh: "That's our fans. When it comes to the music, I guess everybody's got to face it."
Said LeBron James (with a smirk): "It's a big difference between sitting in a studio and then being on the outside. I guess those guys aren't used to it."
More than anything, the heckling of Barkley was a small reason the Heat are the only team undefeated at home in the playoffs. Home is the only place where the most persecuted team in NBA history feels safe, appreciated and, as we saw from the mob scene, protected.
Any and all threats to the Heat are taken rather personally here. Which, on a certain level, is understandable; there seems to be the need to defend a team that's been dumped on constantly.
But if the outburst outside the arena didn't cross the line of fan behavior, the heckling of Joakim Noah did.
Whatever a fan said to the Bulls' center early in Game 3 was evidently enough to push Noah over the edge and into an area he regretted going. After getting tagged by the NBA police with a $50,000 fine for responding with a gay slur to a heckler, Noah would've been better off giving up that argument. The same way so many teams have surrendered on the floor while in Miami.
If Miami runs the table at home from here, then the championship trophy will be rubbed in the face of Barkley and many others who sneered at the idea of three All-Stars hooking up for the sake of winning. Being at home quite possibly means more to the Heat than other teams, if only because nobody is more despised on the road.
"I don't think there's ever a comfortable moment in these playoffs, but we want to defend home court so bad," Bosh said. "I think that's given us an edge here. I think it's important to win out at home and keep the advantage. We have to put elimination on their minds."
They wrapped up the first round on their own floor by sending the Sixers home for the summer. Then they held an emotional celebration (and not surprisingly, were mocked for it later) after eliminating the defending East champion Celtics, who had no luck in Miami, either.
Does that translate into a more relaxed and energized performance? That's debatable. Certainly, the real reason Miami wins at home can also be traced to why they win in other arenas: They're good.
And unless the Bulls snap the Miami home streak in Game 4, the Heat might be too good for Chicago in the East finals. There seems to be too much Bosh from 15 feet, too much Wade on both ends, too much LeBron in the closing moments and too many layers of defense on Derrick Rose for the Bulls to win three of the next four games. But we'll see.
No team in the last decade breezed through the postseason without stumbling at least once at home. The trend of protecting the house began from the outset of a season that quickly turned turbulent. A devastating triple-overtime loss at home to the Jazz, when Miami blew a 22-point lead, followed up two nights later by a thumping from the Celtics, also in Miami, helped the Heat to an 8-7 start. Wade and LeBron were snippy toward each other, not out of disrespect, but from a lack of understanding on the floor.
They quickly decided to stop deferring to each other and as we see now, compliment one other perfectly. Mix in Bosh, who has scored 30 or more points twice in the East finals, and The Big Three are hitting their stride -- to the expense of the team on the other bench.
The burden is now on the Bulls to find the same winning combination. They need scoring help for Rose and must get a better grip on the game deep in the fourth quarter, where Miami has pulled away twice in three games. But the evidence says the young Bulls are probably a season away from doing that to the Heat.
The Heat, meanwhile, are feeling right at home in this series.
"We're all in this together," said Bosh. "We've taken some hits, not only us as players, but the organization and the fans. It's good to be able to respond as one."
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