MIAMI (AP) — A year ago, the Miami Heat were chasing something.
This time around, everyone is chasing them.
And in simplest terms, that’s the taproot of the philosophy Heat coach Erik Spoelstra began trying to instill in his team way back in September, even before the first practice of training camp. Only four franchises since 1969 — only five in league history, period — have won back-to-back NBA championships, proof that successfully defending a title is much tougher than winning one in the first place.
Such is the challenge the Heat will face starting Sunday, when they play host to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series.
“It’s a small group to win back to back because you have to have that same resilience,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “We had resilience last year in that no matter what happened, we were going to get through it. Some way, somehow, we were going to win that championship. Do we have that same resilience again? That’s the unknown.”
Finding that proverbial chip for their shoulders might be tougher than anything else the Heat have faced this season.
They got their rings and then went out and posted the best record in the league, 66-16. They won 27 straight games along the way, won 40 times by double figures, then finished the regular season with an eight-game winning streak — the longest current run in the NBA — despite being without Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh for many of those games.
James missed time with a right hamstring strain, which he said provided him with a break that he didn’t even know he needed. He even likened a few days without basketball to a few days without fiancee Savannah Brinson.
“When you’re around it every day, every single day for the last 2 years, you need something to kind of make you miss it, love it again,” James said. “It’s like being around your wife every day. You go on a road trip for a few days and you love her again and miss her so much when you see her. I’m excited. This postseason, I’m excited. I got an opportunity to be away from the game, not play it as much as I’m accustomed to going down the stretch. I guess basketball is like Savannah in that case.”
James spent nine years chasing ring No. 1, a quest that could be best described as all-consuming. Now that he has a title, he sees no reason to change his playoff approach.
“I’m going in with the same mindset as I had last year, trying to win it for the first time,” James said. “At this point everyone’s record is thrown out the window. We’re all 0-0, all 16 teams, both conferences. So you know, we look forward to the challenge, man. It’s going to be fun.”
Fun — not exactly a word that the Heat said often at this time a year ago. Indiana had them on the ropes in the second round of the playoffs, they needed to win two elimination games to get past Boston and dropped Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Oklahoma City before winning the next four games and the title.
Oddsmakers list the Heat as huge favorites in these playoffs. Phil Jackson, he of the 11 championship rings as a coach, tweeted on Friday that he’s “waiting to see who can challenge the Heat,” and former NBA coach Flip Saunders said earlier this week that he doesn’t “see anyone challenging them.”
Spoelstra is urging his team to ignore all the talk of an assumed June coronation. That’s why he began planting those seeds, urging the Heat to look ahead and not back at last year’s title, before this season even started.
“We wanted to make sure that we had a growth mindset, that we’re trying to get better and not just rest on last year’s success — because that’s what it is, ultimately. It’s last year,” Spoelstra said. “And it never is the same. If you stay the same and everybody else improves, it won’t be enough. And that’s a danger sometimes with success, how you manage it.”
The Lakers franchise, both in Minnesota and Los Angeles, has gone back-to-back multiple times, as have the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics. The Detroit Pistons did it once, as did the Houston Rockets. No other NBA club has pulled it off.
Miami’s chance in 2007 ended amid an injury-riddled regular season and then a first-round sweep.
“Everybody’s focus was to win this year,” said Ray Allen, who was part of Boston’s attempt to go back-to-back in 2009 and signed with the Heat last summer. “Not one guy said anything about last year, what they did. That’s something that always encouraged me. I was very surprised, because nobody was resting on what they had just done.”
And that’s exactly what Spoelstra wanted.
NOTES: Wade stayed out of what Spoelstra described as the “contact, full-speed stuff” in practice Friday, with the All-Star guard still dealing with some bruising around his right knee. Wade expects to do more Saturday, and it won’t affect his availability for Game 1. … There was some amusement over Brandon Jennings’ prediction that the Bucks would win in six games. Spoelstra said the fact that a player thinks his own team will win shouldn’t be at all surprising, and Heat F Shane Battier said “this is America. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and their right to free speech.”