“I’ve always had a bull’s-eye on my chest,” James said recently. “It’s always been, ‘I can't wait until we play the Cavs, so I can go against LeBron.’ Or, ‘I can't wait until we play the Heat, against LeBron.’ Or, ‘I can't wait until we play St. Vincent-St. Mary’s.’ I've never been that guy that can sneak up on somebody. I've never been him.”
The Los Angeles Lakers had won the championship in 2010 but the Heat became the team to beat the moment James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh announced their union in that infamous free agent signing party, in which the trio danced onstage and James spoke of winning multiple titles.
After being humbled by Dallas in its first season together, Miami defeated Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals last June, and while James might not see much difference in the effort from the opposition, his teammates certainly do.
“Even though we was a target in 2010 just because we came together, being a champion is something totally different,” said Wade, who won his first ring playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal in 2006. “I’ve been there before. It’s helped us deal with the spotlight that comes with it and what people expect, but when it comes to the competition, this year is different than any year we’re going to experience.”
The Heat (12-3) has won six in a row and is tied with the Memphis for the NBA’s best record, but hasn’t necessarily been dominant with just four double-digit wins and an average point differential of 5.1, which ranks sixth in the league.
Miami’s three losses are to the Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Clippers and New York – teams that sit atop their respective divisions. But it has had several close calls at home, needing late rallies to hold of Cleveland (playing without injured point guard Kyrie Irving) and San Antonio (playing without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green), and overtime to defeat Milwaukee.
“You can know something is coming, but when you’re in it, it’s like, man it doesn’t make it any easier,” Bosh said. “I love it. It’s a culmination of everything that kind of makes this perfect brew of difficulty. But everybody went through it that has won a championship and we’re not safe from that. We just have to answer the challenge every night.”
The Wizards (1-13) — whom the Heat play on Tuesday at Verizon Center — have the league’s worst record, don’t have John Wall, and Nene is still easing his way back into the fold after missing three months with a foot injury. But Miami has already learned that any opponent is capable of doing the unexpected — especially against the Heat.
“That always helps your competitive spirit, when teams are coming at you, they are inspired, motivated to play against you,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We also have the type of personalities on this team that like that challenge, like the spotlight, like the intensity, like the competition. That helps, because at the root of this all is competition, and you can’t shy away from that.”
Miami has already been groomed to handle the pressure and avoid any possible hangovers, and it also added more veterans to assist in the chase for another title. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis signed last summer, giving the Heat a few more championship-starved players who could help an offense that is currently several steps ahead of the tight-gripped defense that has defined the franchise since Pat Riley arrived.
Using a newfangled scheme without defined positions, the Heat surrounds slashers James and Wade with accurate three-point shooters, uses speed and athleticism to get out on the break for transition baskets and relies on spacing and movement in the half-court. The formula has produced an offense that ranks second in scoring (104.6) and efficiency, scoring 110.5 points per 100 possessions.
“We can close our eyes and use our offense and know that somebody is going to make the right play for the next guy that’s in line. That’s definitely a plus for us,” said James, who leads the Heat in points (24.7), rebounds (8.9) and assists (6.5). “I know I’m never in the conversation, as far as scorers in this league, but I can score with the best of them. I also do other things. When my team needs me to facilitate and get other guys involved, I can do that as well. So, I’m with whatever. I can transform any way, any type of game that needs to be played.”
The defense has been slow to come around, ranking 19th in the league, but it held the Brooklyn Nets to just 16 points over the final 17 minutes in a 102-89 win at home Saturday.
“Right now, we still see a lot of growth in our team to go to the next level, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s where our focus is,” Wade said. “Our goal is just like every other team. We’re not living in the past and what we did last year. We want to win a championship and we have to get better to do that.”
James believes the regular season is already serving as a much-needed test. “For me, for us, we love the competition,” James said. “A lot of guys come up to play great, great games against us. We understand that and we just have to fight fire with fire.”