MIAMI — A reporter tugged on his arm, so Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade stepped off to the side in a corridor just outside the team’s locker room, happy to accommodate. This was something rare: Wade, still in his workout gear, faced just one questioner, not throngs. No such opportunity would have been conceivable last preseason. Cameras and chaos crowded into every media session, making private moments impossible.
More than a year after debuting its big three — Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh — and six months after falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals in six games, the Heat have experienced an uncommonly placid couple of weeks while the Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Hornets, Orlando Magic and other teams caught in the lockout-induced trade-and-signing frenzy have made bigger headlines.
As the NBA prepares to finally start its season, with five games on Christmas Day, Heat players haven’t exactly reveled in tranquility. Lingering pain over their resounding Finals defeat will no doubt be dialed up Sunday, as they watch the Mavericks formally celebrate last season’s championship by raising the 2011 title banner during a pregame ceremony.
“My grandma always told me, ‘Forgive but never forget,’ ” Wade said during the quiet moment last week. “We’ve moved on from last season. Last season is over. But we will never forget. We understand the best team won. We want to come back this year and be the better team.”
Heat players say they will unveil an improved squad for this year’s abbreviated 66-game season, even though it will look a whole lot like last year’s unit. That team, assembled with much fanfare during the summer of 2010, at times seemed historically dominant and brilliant but on other occasions — such as during critical late-game stretches against Dallas in June — disconnected, weak and flawed.
Miami made a few minor moves once the lockout was settled, namely, adding forward Shane Battier for some depth on the perimeter and center Eddy Curry to bolster the front court. But both players are nursing nagging injuries and will not be ready to open the season.
Wade, Bosh and James say they used the extended offseason to target improvements. After two weeks of solid moping after the Game 6 defeat, James sought out NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon for a bit of personal instruction. James took a private jet to Houston for a handful of one-on-one sessions intended to improve his effectiveness in the low post, a spot on the floor he said he is willing to assume more frequently.
Bosh hit the weight room, adding 8 to 10 pounds of bulk to his lanky frame to improve his rebounding and presence inside. He said he also worked on his ballhandling, hoping to help the Heat become more free-flowing and faster paced.
Wade undertook a program of plyometric training designed to strengthen his core and make him better able to withstand the nightly pounding his aggressive game produces. After a midweek practice session, he spent an additional 20 minutes grunting, heaving and dripping sweat as he toiled under the supervision of trainer Rey Jaffet while wearing a heavy resistance cord around his waist.
“Great players are great for a reason,” Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They don’t accept success as a ceiling.”
Spoelstra is urging his players to do more freelancing while worrying less about sticking to set plays, an approach his players have welcomed enthusiastically. Miami was at its worst last season the more robotic it got; early in the year, especially, the Heat looked about as rhythmic as a broken watch as James, Wade and Bosh seemed obsessed with avoiding stepping on one another’s toes.
“We have the basketball IQ to just go out there and play basketball,” Bosh said. “I think that’s the best basketball.”
Heat players say their communication and rapport improved gradually and markedly as last season progressed and, somehow, has already been better this year. In their preseason opener last week against the Magic, Miami shot 58.7 percent and dominated in the meaningless but perhaps telling game. Even in Wednesday’s four-point loss to the Magic, Wade and James combined to hit 15 of 28 shots (53.6 percent).
“We’re much more in sync than we were last year,” Wade said. “We’re a lot more comfortable right now starting the season than obviously we were last year, but even [compared with] ending the year. . . .We’ve gotten a lot more comfortable.”
Last season featured unprecedented scrutiny, a horrific start and some pretty awful days against the Mavericks. The Heat held a somber team meeting after an 11-point loss in Dallas dropped them to 9-8 in late November. The air-out session propelled Miami to 21 victories in the next 22 games — the only defeat came, naturally, against Dallas — but befuddling problems continued to crop up.
In the Finals, the Heat couldn’t muster any late-game tenacity as James all but disappeared, averaging just three points in the fourth quarter.
The trying experiences, Spoelstra insists, will help Miami this season.
“We had a lot of adversity,” said Spoelstra, who received a contract extension during training camp. “When you come back, you all know each other a lot more. You don’t really get to know anybody in this league until things are not good or people aren’t getting along or you get adverse, negative headlines. That’s how you know what people are all about. We really got to know the good, bad and everything in between.”
They also got some basic learning out of the way. Spoelstra recalled meeting with each player in the summer of 2010, and taking stacks of checklists with him to make sure he didn’t forget an important topic.
Training camp this year proved much less stressful. When Spoelstra and James got together for lunch, Spoelstra didn’t even take a notepad.
The two spent little time talking about X’s and O’s.
It was relaxed.
Yet the obvious serenity around American Airlines Arena hasn’t settled all the way into the heads and hearts of Miami’s players.
“I think about [the Finals] every day,” Bosh said. “We really wanted it. It hurts . . . It’s going to be tough [on Sunday in Dallas]. I’m sure they will be feeling good and of course their crowd will be feeling good. Who knows what kind of environment that will be?
“But that’s going to give us the fuel to succeed.”