Anger and fury are Heat’s best friends

April 5, 2012

MIAMI — Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Miami Heat a gift Wednesday night: They reminded the most talented team in the NBA how to become its best.

Through unrestrained, unifying anger.

The Thunder had control of the game and the Heat's often fragile psyche through much of the first half. Then, in acts of stupidity that mirrored much of Westbrook's play the rest of the night, both he and Perkins committed serious fouls that changed everything and led to Miami's 98-93 win.

First, Perkins whacked Dwyane Wade on the head, earning him a technical foul and instilling some of that anger in the Heat. Then, a short time later, LeBron James went up for a dunk on a breakaway and Westbrook, trailing, fouled him hard enough to send him flying. A riotous crowd suddenly held its breath, then, having processed what happened, went apoplectic.

So did the Heat. They turned a lingering deficit into a 16-8 run to close the half and claim a one-point lead that reset the tempo and tone of the game, and spurred them to their 17th straight win at home while avenging last week's loss at Oklahoma City.

After the game LeBron called Westbrook's flagrant foul a "dangerous" play, and acknowledged it got the Heat off and charging in a way they hadn't been in weeks.

"We needed that push," LeBron said. "They made a run and went up as far as 11. … They got up on us and we needed to make a run and make a push and we were able to do that."

Added Wade: "Yeah it did (kick-start us). And it got our fans riled up and got the crowd into it. It just put us into that mode. Obviously a lot of people think for some reason that we're soft."

The Heat, from then on, played liked champions — even as the Thunder gave them everything they could handle. LeBron was a virtuoso of basketball excellence, outscoring Kevin Durant 34-30, dishing 10 assists, snatching seven rebounds, stealing the ball four times and pulsing with a sense of righteous indignation that can be a tipping point not just for this game but also for the rest of the season.

The Miami Heat are best when angry. They did not like being hated last year, they still do not like being doubted this year, and it is when they have come to the court with a sense of anger — having thrown off the burden of being liked and liking others, of being respected and respecting others — that they have been at their best.

They were not angry or focused enough early on. Then Perkins took his swipe, Westbrook committed the kind of foul that can lead to serious injury, and the Heat were transformed. (Westbrook's 9-of-26-shooting, two-assist night also was painful and wrong in a whole other way).

Afterward, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra could barely hide his disgust for everything but the Miami Heat, talking about "truths" only his team could see and cared about and sniping for indiscernible reasons about others labeling his group with accusations, thoughts and labels he said he didn't care about. Whatever, it was weird, and he was clearly pissed off. Good. Now start directing that, night in and night out, at your opponents.

In the locker room, Chris Bosh, having scored just 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting, had a fat lip hopefully fat enough to inspire him to start playing like the NBA star he is. Wade, who had 19 points, was icy and direct in talking about how people think his team is soft, and LeBron instantly agreed.

"We've heard it before," James said. "I guess if you had to write a book on us they'd say, ‘Let's try to beat them up, they'll back down' and things like that. We've got a lot of warriors in here, a lot of guys who have been in a lot of fights. Whatever type of game guys want to play we can play."

I'd agree but suggest a slight tweak: The Heat need to dictate their own type of play, and it needs to be one with some anger and some rage. It unified them last year, it unified them Wednesday night, and it can do the same in the playoffs.

Miami had been adrift lately, wandering off course. And on Wednesday, Durant was pretty good. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron and kept his team in the game until LeBron's excellence and his team's need for payback became too much to handle.

LeBron already was fired up. He was glue on KD in the second half, he was a big reason Durant had nine turnovers, and he shouted loud and wide with his play that his name still belongs atop all MVP lists.

Not every team will do the Heat the favor the Thunder did and provoke this part of them. The Thunder had a real chance to bury the Heat mentally, and that might have led to Miami playing scared in the weeks ahead, because the Heat are a team of streaks, both good and bad. Instead they tapped into anger and it made them play like the team they should be.

To know how to walk that fine line, LeBron need look no further than Wade. His swagger always has been backed by a simmering anger — hard stares at opponents, mocking looks to fans, a cold-blooded talent's penchant for always seeming angry as he succeeded. It's sometimes hard to see through the charm and talent, but Wade plays angry.

That's the ticket for Miami, the one the Thunder helped them punch Wednesday night. Use that — trek the rest of this season with that ferocious focus and rage — and the Heat can be everything they're supposed to be.

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