Calm before the storm: The Heat's quiet quest

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike years past, the Miami Heat have stayed out of the spotlight and away from controversy. As the conference finals approach, they seem more relaxed and at ease with their championship quest.

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There is a calmness about the Miami Heat this season that is perfectly understandable. Since their inception in the summer of 2010, they have existed within the withering eye of public consciousness where their every move has been dissected and debated. "The noise," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls it. If they did not learn how to deal with the noise, they wouldn't be two-time defending champs.

"You get more comfortable with it," Spoelstra told me after a Miami practice last week. "We were all uncomfortable our first year. That's why I coined it, ‘Noise,' and that's all it was. It was just noise and we had to learn how to block it out. Very few of us have been through anything like that. There's strength in going through that together. When you live in that world after three straight years you learn not to overreact to it."

Yet, it's still a bit strange that the Miami Heat, of all teams, have been as tranquil and controversy-free as the San Antonio Spurs. They have been practically normal this season.

"I don't analyze that," Spoelstra said. "I don't know if it's been normal. There's been enough speculation about our team positively and negatively."

The issues for Miami have been almost quaint by comparison to past seasons. LeBron James turned in yet another outstanding season, but conceded the MVP race to Kevin Durant before it was officially over. The Pacers challenged them from the start of the season and Miami's answer was ambivalence.

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Even when there was a chance to steal home court late in the season, the Heat let that opportunity pass without much comment or fight. Not even the pending possibility of free agency for James, Wade and Chris Bosh (all have early termination clauses after this season) has given rise to much chatter beyond the normal whispers and speculation.

"The main thing is to differentiate what's real and what's not real, and not to get caught up in all the different storylines," Spoelstra said. "Whatever your main thing is to get the win the next time that's the only thing that matters. Not all the other noise."

The real concerns are as old as time itself. Dwyane Wade missed almost 30 games for routine maintenance and rest and has had uncomfortable moments in the postseason. Shane Battier has said that he will retire after the season, and his play has indicated that it's time.  There is not the proven depth of prior seasons when Spoelstra could call on a Mike Miller or a Joel Anthony, depending on circumstances.

These issues are potentially more damaging than all the manufactured drama and controversy that came before it. If Wade can't summon his old self a few more times, the burden falls even more heavily on LeBron and Chris Bosh. Battier's decline puts a serious crimp in their smallball approach and has led to more minutes for players like Rashard Lewis and James Jones.

There was no mega winning streak that reminded everyone of Miami's dominance. The lulls seemed longer this year and the statement games were fewer and farther between. But while there have been well-documented concerns, they have not mushroomed into panic.

"It changed after the first year," Spoelstra said. "That was when it was as its peak, but it always rises when there's a loss. It's just not as consistent. It was at its peak our first year together, but it always bubbles up when there's a loss."

Sure enough, a day after getting thoroughly outplayed by the Nets in their first postseason defeat the questions at practice were sharper and more pointed. It was suggested that a loss might be a good thing for a team that rolled through the first round of the playoffs, impervious to all the other fantastic drama of the first round and came to Brooklyn with a 2-0 lead. Again, Spoelstra demurred, "We're not into reality checks or human conditions or anything like that."

This is when The Noise come back, only now it's more muted and tempered. It's hard to have a daily referendum on a team that has accomplished what they have accomplished. The next night, LeBron scored 49 points, which only served to underscore the structural problems for the aging champs. But there are no apologies for playoff wins and the Heat closed the series out in five back in Miami.

***

The Heat have not only evolved as a basketball team, they have also evolved into fully-developed personas. Once thought of as the overwhelmed third wheel, Bosh is the cerebral big man who has become the underrated defensive cornerstone and invaluable long-range shooter. If he's not appreciated yet by the casual fan, he is held in higher regard around the league and within his own locker room. Before games he can be found devouring books, blocking out the noise in his own way.

Battier, Jones and Ray Allen are also well known as independent thinkers with outlooks that stretch beyond the court. All of that has helped keep Miami focused on the larger picture while maintaining an equilibrium through the long, tiring season. Besides the ravages of time, boredom may be their biggest concern.

"Shane has millions of interests outside of basketball," Allen said. "LeBron has a lot of stuff going on. James Jones has a plethora of interests. We spend so much time talking about things that are so far removed from basketball in our down time that helps the time pass a lot easier."

The Heat have developed their own rituals to block out the noise. Before games, the TV's in the locker room show old game footage. One night in Brooklyn, there was an old Raptor playoff game starring Bosh. Before Game 4, the tape of choice was the 2011 playoff matchup with the Celtics. The calmness and relative tranquility is broken only by the mass of reporters trampling through their space and by Chris Andersen bellowing the lyrics to "Brick In Yo Face," which has become a weird sort of ritual.

"We'll be in the locker room and ESPN will be on and guys will turn it," Allen said. "Always at some point it will turn back to something LeBron said, or they're talking about the team. We don't need to hear people's opinions of this team, so we'll just gravitate toward us and we'll do other things."

It always does come back LeBron in one form of another. During his time in Miami he has not only been given his due as one of the game's all-time greats, he's become the league's most eloquent statesmen, offering his opinion about everything from up-and-coming players to Donald Sterling.

"It got to a point I feel like playing basketball is not my calling," James said. "I get all the limelight and the praise because I can play the game of basketball at a high level, but that's not the end of it for me. I have a much bigger calling than just playing basketball."

Unique among his superstar peers for his media accessibility, James holds court before games in crowded locker rooms and after practices. The media pack has grown exponentially larger and faceless but in his way, LeBron is a throwback to the days when Michael Jordan would charm the visiting writers and give them all great copy. James is an event in every city he plays and he seems far more comfortable with the responsibility.

"He doesn't let the fame of what he's got going on affect him or not allow him to live his life," Allen said. "He knows that people know who he is, but he will push all that way and still enjoy what he wants to do."

The day the Sterling audio surfaced, LeBron took the lead in rallying the players, telling reporters before Miami's playoff game with Charlotte that there was no place in the league for the Clipper owner. That quote sharpened the narrative and crystallized the players' disgust with the league's secret shame. There was nowhere for Sterling to hide after those comments. Rather than push blindly ahead, James has taken the long view on the process.

"At the end of the day there's going to be a long litigation," James said last week. "A guy that's owned the team since the '80s is not going to give the team up in a day. We want what's right. As players we want is right and we feel like no one in his family should be able to own the team."

Gone are the days when people would talk for LeBron and put him in awkward situations he couldn't handle. When former teammate Roger Mason suggested that James wouldn't play next year if Sterling was still the Clipper owner, LeBron deftly defused the issue and squashed the story.

***

Despite not having homecourt advantage, the Heat are still the favorites to get back to the Finals. That says less about them than their opponents.

It is odd as the conference finals approach that it's the Indiana Pacers who have dealt with more controversy on their path to this round than the Heat. Rumors and whispers took on a life of their own in the first two rounds and threatened to devour the Pacers before they could even get to their much-discussed showdown with Miami.

Indiana survived all that, and perhaps that's all part of the process a team must go through on their way to bigger and better things. The Heat can only smile and nod with the well-earned knowledge that off the court issues can't hurt them anymore.

"The first year it kind of hit us all by surprise," James said. "Our intention was not what we got back. We took less money, we gave away money to get more players to make a sacrifice for our team. The backlash that we got wasn't what we expected. It took us all by surprise. It changed me as a basketball player. It changed me as a person in the wrong ways that first year. After that first year I started to realize what it was all about and it made a better person today."

As they hit the backstretch on a possible three-peat, the Heat seem more prepared mentally for what lies in store. Their bodies may betray them, but their minds are focused. If they can pull this off they will reach a pantheon shared only by the Lakers, Bulls and Celtics. It will not be as easy as they once thought, but it would be more satisfying than they imagined.

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