MIAMI — Nobody has to the tell the Miami Heat players what’s at stake in 2013-14.
“I think we understand this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Dwyane Wade said.
That’s because the two-time defending champions will try to become the third NBA team of the modern era to win three straight championships. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls did it twice (1991-93, 1996-98) and the Los Angeles Lakers with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant three-peated from 2000-02.
The Heat will begin their quest for a third consecutive title at home against the Bulls in Tuesday night’s season opener.
“We have a very motivated group,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We always constantly emphasize the growth mindset, re-inventing ourselves, getting better, embracing the new challenges and not just thinking our game from last will be good enough.”
Last year, the Heat won 66 games and cruised through a regular season that included a 27-game winning streak. The playoffs, however, were a bigger challenge as Miami was pushed to seven games in both the Eastern Conference finals (vs. Indiana) and the NBA Finals (vs. San Antonio).
If not for Ray Allen’s 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation to force overtime in Game 6 of the finals, the Spurs would have won the crown.
“We know how tough it was last year,” Chris Bosh said. “We have a greater appreciation because we could have lost it as easily as we won it.”
Most of the Heat players arrived at training camp in tremendous physical shape. The Big Three of Wade, Bosh and LeBron James have helped set a workmanlike tone, focusing on winning another title.
To do so, Miami likely will face its toughest path over the past three seasons. That’s because the Eastern Conference should be much improved. Derrick Rose returns to the Chicago Bulls after missing last season due to a knee injury. The Brooklyn Nets acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from Boston to join Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. And the young Pacers are more experienced and a year wiser.
“It’s competitive, we know it is,” Spoelstra said. “The entire Eastern Conference has gotten better.”
That’s why the Heat figure to be tested more often than in recent years during the regular season. Then again, they’re already used to facing amped-up opponents.
“That whole, ‘Once you become champions teams get up for you,’ that happened before we became champions,” Wade said. “We’ve kind of been dealing with that since the first year we were together. Besides that, it’s just basketball.”
Several storylines will follow Miami the entire year, first and foremost the possibility of each Big Three member opting out of his contract after the season.
“We have to focus on now and not become obsessed on the future, because it’s unknown,” Spoelstra said.
The idea of James, Wade and/or Bosh bolting is not one the Heat or their fans are eager to entertain. James made it clear at the team’s media day he will not let it become an issue during the season.
“Being a leader of this team, I owe it to this organization, to my teammates to not talk about it,” James said.
Wade even downplayed the possibility of Big Three departures.
“You have concern when you feel people want to go elsewhere,” Wade said. “I don’t think nobody is looking to go elsewhere.”
Point guard Mario Chalmers and power forward Udonis Haslem are expected to join the Big Three as starters.
Sharpshooter Mike Miller is gone from last year’s team, and several newcomers have joined — guard Roger Mason Jr., forward Michael Beasley and center Greg Oden.
Mason will back up both guard spots. Beasley, drafted second overall by Miami in 2008, returns to prove he can still play and also to repair his image.
As for Oden, he hasn’t played in three years due to chronic knee issues. The Heat are being very cautious with the 7-footer whom Spoelstra said was ahead of schedule. Still, if and when he can contribute steady minutes remains uncertain.
With the newcomers joining a reserve unit of guards Allen and Norris Cole, as well as forwards Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen, James Jones and Joel Anthony, Spoelstra’s rotation could be fluid throughout the season.
“We’re past all the points about rotation with this team,” Spoelstra said. “It’s only about how you can help us win. That may change night to night, it may not. The rotation may be set, it may not.
“Every single year, we’ve needed our depth, every single guy. At some point during, not only during the regular season but at some point during the playoffs, we needed to go deep into our rotation.”
Last season: 66-16, defeated San Antonio 4-3 in NBA Finals.
Coach: Erik Spoelstra (sixth year, 260-134).
Top returnees: SF LeBron James, SG Dwyane Wade, C Chris Bosh.
Key additions: F Michael Beasley, G Roger Mason Jr., C Greg Oden.
X-Factor: Chris Andersen. The “Birdman” arrived in late January and provided frontline depth with his 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14.9 minutes. He became a crowd pleaser with his tattoos, Mohawk haircut and energetic play. Will he be able to sustain his style for an entire season? The Heat are betting he can.
Strengths: Offensively, there’s not much this team can’t do. The presence of the Big Three, shooters off the bench and the ability to be versatile — largely due to James and Bosh being able to play any role needed — can create difficult match-ups for the oppposition.
Weaknesses: As the preseason ended, Spoelstra said the team continued to work on its rebounding and needed to do a better job defending 3-pointers. The lack of a true center was exploited by Indiana’s Roy Hibbert during the conference finals, but few teams have such a dominate big man in the pivot. If Oden can contribute, that problem will be lessened.
Outlook: The Heat remain the team to beat. The conference is stronger but the mettle of James, Wade & Co. can’t be overestimated. While home-court advantage throughout the postseason will be a goal, making sure Wade and James are rested and ready for the playoffs will take precedence.