Posted Jan 13 2011 11:58AM
"Actually, I really don't care. I really don't. So much has been made of it, I just ... my focus is in here."
-- Ray Allen, guard, Boston Celtics
"I don't think about what they do. Honestly. It's not my concern in the least. I mean, everybody else is so concerned with what they're doing. I really don't care. They're playing very well. Good for them."
-- Tim Duncan, forward, San Antonio Spurs
"The Heat is what we thought it was. If you want to crown them, then crown their ..."
-- Dennis Green, former coach, NFL Arizona Cardinals
Oops, check that. The third quote about the Miami Heat came from Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics, and it wasn't nearly as entertaining or half as emotional as Green's postgame rant from a few years about the Chicago Bears. "I could care less, honestly. I am always concerned about our team," Rivers said when asked the other day about the team locked elbow-to-elbow with his atop the Eastern Conference.
If the sports world in general is sick of the endless Carmelo Anthony trade conjecture and hand-wringing, the players and coaches within the NBA's gyms and locker rooms have had their belly full of something quite different: Miami and its metamorphsis from the kickable, beleaguered bunch of November into pretty much what everyone expected and feared.
From a 9-8 start that was almost too good to be true to those who hated the Heat, to the tsunami-like turnaround in winning 21 of 22 games from Nov. 29-Jan. 9, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, coach Erik Spoelstra and the rest seem now to have righted themselves faster than you can say schadenfreude.
Their 111-105 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night at Staples Center? Six or seven weeks ago, that would have been all about piling on and keeping the Heat down. Now it's the sort of thing teams celebrate for its rarity. An upset rather than an obligation to heed the "Kick Me" signs long gone from Miami's backs.
Miami's Big Three still accounted for 84 points, but the Heat's road-winning streak was snapped at 13, three victories shy of tying the NBA record (16, Los Angeles Lakers, 1971-72). What matters most, though, is that the Heat are capable of starting another such streak as soon as Thursday night when they face the Denver Nuggets in the fourth game of a five-game trip.
And just so everyone knows, the Heat players haven't forgotten how much people enjoyed their struggles through the first month of this season. They are enjoying the fact that those people no longer can enjoy that.
"I would hope that everybody appreciates good basketball," Bosh said after Miami's 101-95 overtime victory in Milwaukee Friday. "But we know we're going to have a lot of people against us. That's OK. Every team is going to go through some kind of controversy, some kind of dilemma every season. Ours came early, and I think it was really good for us to experience that. It really helped us come closer together and just figure things out. Ever since then, we've been playing well."
Understatement alert: The Heat have been torrid. They strung together nine straight victories, and 10 of 11, by more than 10 points each. Miami is 19-4 vs. the Eastern Conference, 15-6 on the road, ranks No. 1 in defensive field-goal percentage (.425), second in shooting percentage (.474) and first in scoring differential (9.08).
As Boston navigates a series of injuries, as Orlando regroups and resets itself from its rather large trades with Phoenix and Washington, as the Lakers twist and turn through their daily dramas, Miami is right where everyone thought they would be on that fateful night of bad television back in July.
They have a chance only to tie -- rather than break -- the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72-10. That's what happens when a team goes from barely past Thanksgiving to well beyond New Year's Day with just two losses.
"I'm not going to lie to you: I'm very surprised it turned around very quickly," Bosh said. "But I'm not mad at all. I want to build on it and keep going. We still feel we can get a lot better. In order to win that championship, we're going to have to improve every day."
Said Wade: "We knew we'd turn it around. But I think we fast-tracked this thing a little quicker than we even expected. The biggest thing was, even when we were struggling, we stayed together. We knew it was going to take time. It's not ideal having me miss the whole preseason and then having Udonis [Haslem] go down and having Mike [Miller] go down. We had a lot of different things going on. But we figured it out."
Miami's turnaround has been as sudden as the way its roster came together: seemingly on a dime and within a matter of weeks. Even Gregg Popovich, whose success in San Antonio has been built on continuity, is impressed.
"What is shows is how really talented and great those players are," Popovich said Wednesday after the Spurs' victory at Milwaukee. "Conventional wisdom would be that it takes a while to put things together. But these guys, I think, are an anomaly because they are so talented. They are some of the best players in the league, top echelon, not just because of their talent but because of their drive, their competitiveness on top of it. So they're going to give everybody fits as the year continues. They're just going to get better."
Things have gone so well, the Clippers game not withstanding, that Spoelstra has had to cope with a scarcity of teachable moments lately -- which at least is better than coping with rampant speculation about his job security. Two overtime escapes against the Bucks and the Trail Blazers to start this trip, followed by the 18-point hole the Heat dug in the first quarter at Staples Center Wednesday, has given him enough to re-load.
But the real challenge will be keeping the Heat focused and hungry to the point that they don't try to win games by playing well for a quarter or two.
"We've proven we can have these great bursts over the course of a game," Spoelstra said. "It changes from game to game. What we want to have is an absolute team and game burst. That's what we're striving for. Until we reach that level of real consistency, we're not reaching our full potential."
The Heat coach said that, as trying as it was, the struggles of November made possible what his team has done since. "We had incredible desperation -- a collective desperation at the end of November -- to figure it out and turn it around," Spoelstra said. "There's a lot of anxiety. Those are powerful team emotions. Now we have to make sure we have that similar frame of mind.
"We cannot let that month affect our frame of mind right now. We have to reach higher. Simply to try to get to another level. There might be another two or three levels with this team."
James has been doing his part, playing to -- and reinforcing -- his newfound role of NBA villain everywhere he goes. If he doesn't do it on the floor (44 points at Portland, 38 at Charlotte, a triple-double as the Lakers' Christmas gift), he does it via Twitter or some stray pre- or postgame comment. The boos continue.
"I hope it doesn't stop, me personally," he said last week. "I think it's great to use it as motivation. A little adversity. There's nothing wrong with that. We thrive in those pressure situations on the road.
"The funny thing is we've heard a lot of boos for the first few quarters. Late in the third or in the fourth quarter, we've heard some cheers. We just work through it. ... We don't go into games saying 'Let's turn the boos into cheers.' Which is pretty cool when you can do that."
The rest of the league might not be booing, but it most certainly is flinching. Three years ago, another Insta-Team came together more quickly than anyone expected. We all could be seeing that happen again.
"Usually when you make [dramatic personnel] moves like that, historically, everyone says 'You can't do it in the first year,' " Rivers said. "It's funny, my take on it with [our team] was, 'You're old, you can't take a lot of years.' And it really came to fruition when you think about it the following year, Kevin [Garnett] was hurt. Where with this group, they do have a lot of years, as far as age. But you can't take any year for granted.
"If you have a chance to win it, you'd better do it if you can. Because the following year, there's no guarantee with injuries, trades, personalities."
The clock is ticking for everyone. Pounding for some. Humming for the Heat.
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