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As super as they are, the Miami Heat's big three have to learn as they go

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 11:41 PM

MIAMI

The third game of the season laid out the possibilities of what the Miami Heat could become. There was the trashing of an elite opponent, in this case the mouthy Orlando Magic. There was the stifling defense that allowed just 30 percent shooting and barely an assist. There was LeBron James choreographing, Dwyane Wade flying through the air, Chris Bosh rebounding and defending; and there was a helper - this time James Jones - doing the specific task that is asked of him on a particular evening.

What we learned one week into the mission of the Miami Heat is that the Super Friends will have to indulge in the same time-honored rituals that are required of every champion, which is to say practice, film study, trial-and-error and, to a degree, failure. What we learned after one week of actually watching LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the Heat play together is that the team has an abundance of strengths, enough to produce championships, but weaknesses that could sabotage the whole effort if they aren't shored up or at least hidden to some degree.

Their second biggest asset, trailing only the sheer talent they possess, could be the seriousness with which they're tending to the process of building a team. Erik Spoelstra, the coach entrusted to assemble a champion, said Friday morning, "They want to make it work. You should see the attention devoted in meetings and practices. Their intentions are pure. There are no agendas."

The non-basketball fans who tune in, who care about celebrity and the latest gossip from South Beach - and the NBA hopes there will be millions of them who do-will fixate on LeBron's triple-doubles and Wade's acrobatics, their jersey sales, endorsement campaigns and rivalries real and perceived with today's players and icons. With all due respect to Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat will remain the No. 1 curiosity in professional basketball, and in the absence of a truly superior pro football team, perhaps all of professional sports in America.

Wade, while expecting something extreme, wasn't quite ready for how people have lined up to declare how they feel about the team.

"It's special, and we knew it would be," he said."But to be the most loved and the most hated team in sports at the same time . . . the level of it is just amazing. On the road, the boos and the cheers at the same time is noticeable. And remember, there's an impact on the global game. We've gotten the attention of non-basketball fans throughout the world. This, on a lot of levels, seems to transcend sports."

Wade called the first week "as much fun as I've ever had in basketball." There is no indication the three of them walk around dreading the pressure of expectations. But they all know from just the first three games - a loss to Boston, a victory over Philly and the blowout of Orlando - that each will have to change his game to fit the way Miami will have to play.

Wade probably will change the least. Miami will need his scoring, his daring drives to the basket, his physicality around the basket since the team is relatively small. Wade will need to be the same Wade we've seen for the past seven seasons, especially the Wade who teamed with Shaq to win a championship in 2006. Wade acknowledged Friday night, "I've got to be who I am, which is being aggressive. . . . That's why [LeBron] came to Miami."

LeBron will become the primary playmaker. He'll initiate the offense. Instead of scoring 30 points a game, LeBron's ideal line might be something closer to 18 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds. He could lead the NBA in triple-doubles, and might actually need to if Miami is to become a dominant team.

And Bosh, who is used to scoring more than 20 points a night, has already forgotten about those days of being Toronto's go-to guy. "The most challenging part," he said late Friday night after the Orlando game, "is redefining my role. I'm accustomed to being a focal point. . . . But if this new role calls for focusing on defense and rebounding . . . somebody has to rebound the basketball, might as well be me. If it means being more of a post player, I'm open to that."

Bosh even painted a scenario in which LeBron has to change what he has customarily done. "LeBron may be used to [taking a rebound and] going all the way to the basket. . . . But if he's got D-Wade and Eddie House in the corners, just make the simple pass."

Miami will probably best be served if Bosh really does post up more since Zydrunas Ilgauskas likes to face the basket and LeBron and Wade don't like to operate in the low post. LeBron, with his size and skill, will need to add a low-post element to his game the way Michael Jordan did as he got older. LeBron would be unstoppable on the block, what with his size and passing instincts. But that's for a future summer.

Bosh gets pushed out on the floor, but he's the most likely candidate to get on the block and play with his back to the basket. Statistically, Bosh is probably going to evolve into a 14 points, 11 rebounds kind of player, which will serve the team but probably cost him all-star appearances and some of the cache that goes with being a big scorer.

When someone asked him how long it will take for him to score big for Miami, Bosh said of opposing defenses, "Right now, the thing that's throwing me off is how they're still doubling the post. I really thought I'd have free rein." Perhaps he will once LeBron is comfortable as the primary playmaker, but not at the moment.

Against Orlando, Miami had its first long stretch of putting all the theories into practice. Spoelstra decided early on to spend training camp obsessing over defense because the team could win games that way immediately while figuring out how to go about things offensively, which requires the precision that only comes with many more practices and games than the team would have available in the preseason. The Heat held Orlando's starting forwards to zero baskets, and it held the Magic to a total of five assists. So Spoelstra took a low-risk gamble that's already paying off.

"The ceiling is high; we all know that," LeBron said. "This is how we can play . . . to hold teams to 30 percent shooting, though, that would be tough to do every night. . . . [But] we can use this game as [a reference point] of something to come back to. . . . This is what we envisioned when D-Wade came back and Chris and I joined him and the other guys here. A 26-point win and a dominating game every night out? No."

Someone asked LeBron about laying the wood to Orlando, whose coach, Stan Van Gundy, whose GM, Otis Smith, and whose players, right down to reserve center Marcin Gortat, were not shy at expressing some level of dislike for Miami in some form or another. "We heard everything Orlando had to say during the summer," LeBron said. "They know we're here for the long haul and we're know they're here for the long haul, too. . . . Only so many words can be said. The ball has to be thrown up now."

We saw ample evidence Friday night that as October turns to November to December to January, what is now a work in progress has a reasonable chance of becoming a masterpiece. And that process, as inexact and as complex as it will be, will define a team and very likely an entire basketball season.

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