Heat keeping their eyes on the big picture
November, 21, 2013
By Michael Wallace
ORLANDO -- Word around the NBA is that the Indiana Pacers have commanded the Miami Heat's full attention.
That was certainly the case Wednesday night.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade stood shoulder to shoulder in the Amway Center's visiting locker room whispering between each other and staring intently at the big-screen television tuned into overtime of the game between the Pacers and New York Knicks.
Miami had just finished feasting on the young Orlando Magic in a 120-92 victory. And Heat players washed down their fifth straight win with bowls of gumbo, plates of chicken and turkey, along with slices of coconut and chocolate cake -- all prepared by Ray Allen's mother, Flo, who lives in Orlando.
“It's early Thanksgiving,” James shouted through the room.
If anyone questioned the Heat's level of hunger after winning their second consecutive title, the answer could be found somewhere between the devoured buffet-style spread and the head-nodding approval of Miami's players as their biggest nemesis in the East secured a tough road victory.
Earlier this season, a similar episode played out in the Pacers locker room as Indiana's players gazed at the TV to watch the finish of a Heat game. It's no coincidence these teams go out of their way to keep an eye on one another.
The Heat have heard all of the talk and have internalized the subtle and overt messages the Pacers have sent with their 10-1 start and designs on the top seed this time around after losing to Miami in Game 7 of the conference finals.
To that end, James offered another declaration Wednesday.
“We don't concede anything,” said James, who rested the entire fourth quarter for the third straight game as Miami notched its most lopsided win of the season. “We're here to play. We don't talk about the No. 1 seed. We don't really get involved in that. We want to play No. 1 basketball, be No. 1 in our league, and let the record take care of itself.”
The Heat didn't see anything to worry about or lose their appetite over as they showered, dressed and ate before departing Orlando. But best believe the Pacers have firmly established themselves as a nuisance of a team the Heat want to put in their place when the time comes.
Indiana and Miami don't meet for the first of their four regular-season games until Dec. 10. There will be plenty of hype and national spotlight on those matchups, but the Heat could just as easily dismiss them as encounters in which they have nothing to prove. Judging by the whispers and smirks in pockets of the locker room Wednesday, the Pacers could go 81-1 and it would only annoy the Heat.
But not faze them.
“We'll always be the hunted team, because no matter how good of a start Indiana has, they're going to be worked up to play us,” center Chris Bosh said Wednesday between bites of gumbo and cornbread. “We gave them some pain that they'll never forget. That's something we understand.”
Bosh then tilted his head in quizzical fashion, swallowed his food and suddenly remembered the time of the year.
“Man, what are we talking about the No. 1 seed for? It's November,” he said. “We understand they've had a little bit more time than us to think about it. That's going to be their juice and everything. But there's a lot of ball to play.”
And there's are a lot of improvements Miami must make, despite an average victory margin of 17.8 points during its five-game winning streak. The Heat also have won eight of their last nine games since that 1-2 start to the season.
The Heat are finding ways to win now despite taking a long view of the season. That primarily is the reason why Wade sat out of his second game in as many nights to rest knees that have been sore since he reluctantly played in both games of a back-to-back set last weekend. The Heat on Wednesday sounded like they're going to be even more cautious with Wade than they already were entering the season after he had chronic problems with both knees during last season's title run.
At one stage before Wednesday's game, coach Erik Spoelstra's comments about the approach with Wade sounded like ones he's used to temper some enthusiasm and expectations surrounding Greg Oden's methodical progress.
“We want to make sure that he's getting stronger, feeling better as the season goes on,” Spoelstra said of Wade. “We wanted to use these last couple of days to get him healthy, get him back training, start building his legs back up. We do have a plan. We want to be patient with it. We want to be disciplined with it, considering all the circumstances.”
As they Heat bide their time as Wade continues a painstaking recovery from offseason shock-wave therapy treatment on his knee, they've been boosted by a supporting cast around James that grows more productive each game.
After Allen, Michael Beasley, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis and Mario Chalmers have stepped up with big performances in recent games, it was James Jones' turn Wednesday. Jones, who has spent much of the season as the Heat's unofficial 13th man in the rotation, made his second straight start at guard for Wade and had 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range against the Magic.
Jones was one of five players to score in double figures for the Heat, who shot 51.4 percent overall and were 15-of-24 on 3-pointers en route to leading by as many as 36 points.
“Every year we've gotten better,” Jones said. “Every year, we've gotten more continuity, more familiarity with each other and it's reflected in the way we play.”
James considers this season's version of the Heat as the deepest team he's played with since he arrived in Miami, which is high praise considering he's led the team to three consecutive trips to the Finals and back-to-back titles.
“And Greg hasn't even played a regular-season game [yet],” James pointed out Wednesday. “It's great to have so many guys that can play so many meaningful minutes.”
A week ago, there was the notion that Indiana would run away with the regular season in the East and the top seed. Now that they're starting to gain rhythm and hit a stride, the Heat insist they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
“We still want to take care of first place in the East,” Bosh said. “But we're going to stay grounded, take it one game at a time and keep putting everything together appropriately.”