Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Time Will Tell for Streaking Miami Heat

MILWAUKEE -- It was late in the first quarter, and LeBron James was sitting on the bench, looking at his finger, the ring finger on his left hand to be precise. He was biting at it, and eventually turned and called the trainer. This was it? A big moment?

The trainer brought over ... nail clippers. And James, wearing his wristband that didn't say LIVESTRONG on it, but rather KING JAMES, sat there and did his nails.

And that's when it hit me: we might be looking a little too hard at James, Dwyane Wade, that other guy and the Miami Heat for a telling moment. Each detail is not going to tell their story in early December. This thing is going to play out, and while they all have looked like a bunch of divas so far, brought down by their own egos, they are awfully talented.

The real news is that the Heat, in the past week, have started to look a little more like a team, albeit against bad opponents. Miami beat lowly Milwaukee, 88-78, Monday night in a game that proved nothing, said nothing. It was the Heat's fifth straight win.

"Going through those situations early in the season helped us," James said. "We couldn't right the ship, couldn't get through that. The early season trials and tribulations we've been through have helped us calm down."

Miami went way up, and then Milwaukee came back. Then, in the final five minutes, Miami put the game away. And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who seems to have survived James' run at getting him fired last week, said it was a sign of progress, that a few weeks ago, the Heat would have fallen apart.

That's an awfully low standard, to be proud of three guys who think they have formed the first NBA Dream Team for not giving up with a small lead against a bad team.

One thing is for sure: this is no Dream Team. When Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were on the court together, something magical happened, and they were greater than the sum of their parts.

So far, Wade, James and Bosh are just parts. And they aren't even on the floor at the same time all that much. When they are, they seem to take turns, unable to find a natural flow.

Guess how many titles James, Wade and the other guy, Chris Bosh, have won?

One. Wade. He is the only champion, and he's the one who is trying to take charge, getting a career-best 14 rebounds Monday.

But in the end, this entire season is going to be a referendum on James, and whether he's a champion, too.

His actions so far are warning signs. The way he quit against Boston in the playoffs last year. The ridiculousness of "The Decision," when he announced he was coming to Miami. The way he chose to come to someone else's team rather than demand the team be his. Jordan would never have been satisfied to be a sidekick.

And then the finger-pointing regarding Spoelstra recently, when James' people went to ESPN and complained, on James' behalf, that Spoelstra had no offense and was panicking.

That was James panicking. It was his ego and immaturity threatening to tear down the whole thing already.

But the Heat have survived James. And now we'll see if he can learn, if Wade and Spoelstra can build him into a real champion.

I say they can't. But there are months to figure it out, months for Wade to rub off on James, and not the other way around.

Months for James to decide whether he's willing to listen to a coach.

The Heat have survived (LeBron James' ego). And now, we'll see if he can learn, if (Dwyane) Wade and (Erik) Spoelstra can build him into a real champion. There are months to figure it out, months for Wade to rub off on James, and not the other way around. I asked Spoelstra if things have flip-flopped in sports today, where a coach has to earn a player's respect.

"I don't know," he said. "One of the toughest things in this league is getting NBA players to do things they don't want to do, but you feel are important for victory."

Wade can do it, and is starting to show it. But is James willing?

Already, Spoelstra complained to him that he needs to get serious, and James went whining straight to ESPN.

I had an interesting view of James Monday, sitting to his side, five feet from him when he sat on the bench. He watched carefully, clapped for his teammates, did his nails. "TOWEL," he barked, and some kid handed one to James, who didn't look at the kid.

"And one," James said when Wade made a layup and was fouled. He jumped when big plays were made, shrugged his shoulders when he disagreed with officials.

But there was no fire, no edge. And Bosh seemed kind of soft.

Wade is the leader, the guts. But he said that Bosh is the most quiet, then Wade, then James. All, Wade said, are leaders.

"And all of our voices will be heard.''

Well, things are getting better for the Heat. Wade, James and Bosh arrived together for their post-game press conference and seemed to be doing improv.

They stood behind three microphones, with two extended high and one only a few inches off the ground.

"Hey, that my mic?" Wade said, laughing.

Someone asked James if the crowd treated him the same way that it had everywhere all year.

"No, it's the first game I've been booed on the road,'' he deadpanned. "I haven't heard those boos before all year. Haven't heard it. Kind of surprising to hear my name announced, hear the boos. Every time I touch the ball, hear the boos.

"Luckily, Dwyane and Chris showed up tonight. I was very distracted by it."

Wade, who played here in college for Marquette, said he pointed out his jersey hanging in the rafters.

"Talking about the one ...'' James said.

"You know which one," Wade said.

"Glenn Rivers, right?" James said.

It's all fun again for these guys. But that's short-term, too. It's going to come down to whether James has learned anything, and whether he's even willing to try or if he's just a shell, filled with hot air.


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