Heat 92, Cavaliers 86
They got rid of those giant black curtains at the top of the arena, the ones intended to hide sections of empty seats. The place was packed to the rafters, and throbbing. You could say it was a playoff atmosphere at American Airlines Arena on Thursday night, only Miami has had plenty of playoff games that lacked this electricity -- unless, that is, you count all those games against the New York Knicks at the old Miami Arena in which it was never quite clear which was the home team.
Thursday, it was clear. With a sellout crowd of 20,235 applauding Shaquille O'Neal even before he got out of the locker room (his image was shown on the giant screens above the court). They cheered when he received a pass in the post some 20 seconds into the Heat's home opener, dribbled twice, then leaned over Zydrunas Ilgauskas as if he were a stalk of corn, pushing in a soft hook.
They roared when O'Neal dunked so furiously late in the first quarter of a 92-86 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers that the basket bent at about a 20-degree angle, and they paid close enough attention to go positively nuts over acrobatic second-year star Dwyane Wade, who outperformed both O'Neal and Cavaliers star LeBron James.
"It was fun. There was a lot of energy in the building," said O'Neal, who is nursing a sore hamstring. "I worked too hard to sit out. . . . I will be a force as the time comes. I'm starting out at about 60 or 70 percent. It's only going to get up."
O'Neal scored 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds while Wade scored a flashier 28 points. But O'Neal brings the Heat everything Miami fans have always stubbornly demanded before spending money on NBA tickets: relevance, star power and title hopes.
"He's going to pack the building, bring celebrities out, give confidence to everybody and fear to certain opponents," Wade said. "He's going to bring so much stuff it's scary."
Even former tennis star Boris Becker donned one of the thousands of "Back in Black" T-shirts handed out at the door, pulling it over his much more stylish silk shirt. Not 15 seconds into the game and the crowd already was roaring: "Let's go Heat! Let's go Heat!"
Last year at this time, the leather of the basketball produced a dull echo in a largely empty arena. Alonzo Mourning had thanked Heat owner Micky Arison for his millions and support through kidney disease by bolting to the New Jersey Nets, whom the Heat defeated Wednesday, figuring he had a better shot for a title there.
The ever-rumpled Stan Van Gundy was scrambling around a sideline Pat Riley used to pace like a fashion runway, promoted to head coach just days before the season. Tim Hardaway, the player who stirred this town like no other, was long gone, replaced by a bunch of young guys nobody around here had ever heard of. Didn't matter that they were talented enough to advance eventually to the second round of the playoffs.
"Last year, we had to make a crowd," Wade said. "This year, it's already made."
Since Riley joined the team in 1995, the Heat has dabbled in Hollywood, it just never quite managed the Oscar Riley has sought with an intensity of mythic proportions. Riley armed himself with Mourning and Hardaway (he almost got Juwan Howard, too) and spent years running into the Knicks and Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. He re-armed with Eddie Jones and Brian Grant (who was part of the O'Neal trade) and ran into walls everywhere.
How confident is the Heat that this will finally be the year? The season's promo video features the entire squad emerging from a stretch limousine and stepping onto a red carpet.
Wade, a 2004 Olympian, suddenly has more room for his creative dribbling and driving. Rasual Butler, Udonis Haslem and Jones have wide-open looks, thanks to the double-teaming presence of O'Neal.
"It's exciting for everybody," Butler said. "It's an opportunity for unknown people to be known. We know everybody's coming to see Shaq. But we're also out there."