MIAMI — Nearly six months of regular-season basketball proved to be more interesting than had been expected for the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
Instead of a cruise, it was a bumpy ride. (Or at least, as bumpy as a 54-28 record could be.)
Dwyane Wade missed 28 games, mostly to protect his knees following surgery and OssaTron shockwave treatment during the past two summers.
LeBron James endured a sore back and temporarily donned a much-publicized mask after suffering a broken nose.
The Heat struggled against sub-.500 teams all year and limped into the playoffs going 11-14 overall during the final 25 games.
But now, the real season starts.
A team built to win championships begins its quest for a three-peat by facing the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Game 1 will be 3:30 p.m. Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Winning that series would earn a date with the winner of the Toronto-Brooklyn series. Indiana or Chicago likely would await in the Eastern Conference finals.
No matter who comes out of the East, there’s a good chance the Western Conference winner will have home-court advantage and be favored in the NBA Finals.
Last season, defending-champ Miami headed into the playoffs having won 37 of its final 39 games. The Heat then disposed of Milwaukee in four games and Chicago in five before prevailing in seven-game series against Indiana and San Antonio — thanks partly to Ray Allen’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 6 — to win their second straight title.
Predicting how the Heat will fare in this year’s playoffs is not clear-cut.
There’s only one LeBron James, and his talents reside in Miami. His size, pure ability and flexibility to play all five positions makes him the best player of his era.
James averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists this season.
Add in Chris Bosh (16.2 ppg.) and Wade (19.0 ppg.), and the Big Three give opponents matchup problems and headaches.
”We’ve got to carry the load and we have to set the example both on the floor and off the floor during this postseason,” James said after Friday’s 2 1/2-hour practice.
”This is what makes elite players elite players,” Wade said. ”You don’t get the ‘elite’ name unless you’ve done it at this level, especially when you have multiple years in the league. That’s why they pay all of us the big bucks, for this time of year.”
The James Gang is a veteran crew, one that won’t wilt under the postseason pressure or in games going down to the wire. A veteran bench sports players who have accepted their roles and have complemented the Big Three.
The Heat were fifth (97.5 ppg.) in the league in points allowed, and the intensity should increase for a team that prides itself on defense.
Wade was looking so healthy right before he missed nine late-season games due to a sore hamstring. He returned to play in the season’s last three games, but time will tell how healthy he is.
”We all feel great about where he is right now going into this,” coach Erik Spoelstra said, ”but you just have to be ready for anything.”
The team that struggled to the finish line looked out of sync offensively at times and turned over the ball way too much. Can those traits disappear for the postseason?
”The playoffs are always a fresh start,” Bosh said. ”We’re looking to get back after it. We were kind of lulling around. The schedule was brutal, it kind of got to us mentally and physically, but now we haven’t had any games in a little while and I think everybody can hit the reset button and refresh their minds.”
Days off in between playoff games certainly will help the veteran team, but there’s no denying players such as James, Bosh, Wade, Ray Allen and Udonis Haslem have put a lot of mileage on in recent years. Do they have enough to lead Miami to a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals?
”We’re as healthy as we’ve been in a long time, but that doesn’t guarantee anything,” Spoelstra said.
Miami was 12th (102.2 ppg.) in the league in scoring, and they’ll try to improve while most teams raise their defensive level.
It’s not a reach to say the Heat could three-peat, get eliminated in the second round or anything in between. The only thing seemingly certain is they should get past Charlotte, which has lost 16 straight games to Miami.
With a relatively healthy Wade, the feeling here is the Heat will reach the NBA Finals. Playing San Antonio or Oklahoma City — two teams that would hold home-court advantage — will be a difficult task, though.
But if Wade is hampered by his knees or hamstring, Miami probably will have trouble getting out of the East where Brooklyn, Chicago and Indiana already rate as strong challengers.