Vilified Heat a team fans love to hate

What, you’re shocked?

Don’t be.

To this point, the Miami Heat have merely done what the franchise was rightfully expected to do. What’s more, those very expectations have served the team well, as a kind of crucible from which the players were hardened.

No one likes the Heat. Actually, let me qualify that — no one but South Floridians and grade-school kids who worship at the altar of the sneaker gods. And David Stern, too. A couple of weeks ago, he was forced to consider the possibility of a championship round between Atlanta and Memphis, a prospect that no doubt would have caused a lockout to begin no later than midnight June 1. So, yes, he likes the Heat for the same reason most people can’t stand them: LeBron James.

It began with “The Decision,” an act of televised hubris that exceeds even the Kardashian imagination. Still, almost 11 months later, the reminders of James’ arrogance and ruthless people skills are everywhere, the most recent being Mike Brown’s hiring by the Los Angeles Lakers. Brown, you may recall, was the Cleveland Cavaliers coach — a pretty good one, too — who kowtowed to his superstar’s every whim for five seasons. It only got him fired. Never mind that the Cavaliers owner did it to keep the King he now rails about. James could’ve saved Dan Gilbert the trouble and Brown his job. All he had to do was make his intentions known.

Now if you consider Brown’s sudden signing with L.A. a form of justice, don’t expect the Finals to be resolved so happily. I’ll say it again: The Heat should win a championship. There’s no excuse for them not to.

Perhaps it is unfair for all the hate to spill onto such righteous ballplayers as Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem (whose newfound health, if still relative, is just another reason the Heat should be favored to beat the Dallas Mavericks). But fairness, I remind you, is not a paramount concern to the commissioner, the networks, the websites or the fans. Ratings are. Clicks are. And not only do the Heat push the needle, the hate they engender has become their biggest asset.

Going back to the preseason, they have been tested unlike any team in basketball. They have been criticized and psychoanalyzed. They have been covered and uncovered, exposed and reconsidered. As it concerns the level of scrutiny, and the pressure of expectation, their postseason began in October.

“This team has built up a lot of resiliency and toughness,” the coach, Erik Spoelstra, said after his team had vanquished the team with the NBA’s best regular-season record.

“People didn’t think we were capable of being as good as we are,” said Chris Bosh, with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the closeout win over the Bulls.

"Obviously, it wasn’t a smooth ride," said Wade, who recalled Spoelstra calling a timeout with the Heat down 10 early in the fourth quarter. “Coach just said, ‘We’ve done this before.’ "

“You got to be put in that position time after time after time,” James said.

James had missed nine straight shots at one point. Wade had nine turnovers. But in that fourth quarter, they scored 12 and 10 points respectively.

Point is, experience counts – especially in this sport, at this time of year. Don’t believe me? Ask the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls, both very talented, both very young, both of whom lost in the conference finals four games to one.

The Dallas Mavericks, of course, have an abundance of experience; Dirk Nowitzki, who is playing the best ball of his career, and Jason Kidd, have both lost in the Finals. Then there’s Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler, all of whom have been around 10 seasons or longer.

And the backup point guard (a mere five-year veteran), isn’t bad, either. Consider the way J.J. Barea spread out the Lakers and negated their size advantage.

Five years after the Heat and the Mavericks first met in the Finals, the rematch promises to be better. But the Heat have two transcendent players still in their primes (as opposed to one for Dallas) and another mere superstar. This is what they wanted; this is what they got. Home court, no excuses.

"What’s today’s date, the 26th?" James asked. "I say we’ve got about a month left, about a month left of continued hate."

Ah, to be young, rich and persecuted.

I’m left to wonder if Jim Gray will slip the championship ring on King James in a special televised coronation.

In the meantime, enjoy the games. It’ll be the last pro basketball you see for a while.