Are these Heat really any different?

April 2, 2012

MIAMI — It's simple. Either the Miami Heat are the Heat 2.0 — hardened, emboldened and made better by all that's transpired since LeBron James uttered those words about South Beach.

Or they're the same team that relentlessly showed signs all last season, to those willing to see, that their glorious trio came with a very real Achilles' heel — the one that finally caught up to their historic expectations with a historic Finals collapse against the Dallas Mavericks.

There was a mental weakness there, a tendency to show that the narrative of the 72-win-caliber superteam was blotted by a LeBron capable of mental letdowns that could boggle the mind, by a Chris Bosh whose disappearing acts were rivaled only by his tendency to admit he wasn't always fitting in socially, and by a Dwyane Wade who when faced with these things had trouble hiding the shock that the masterpiece he'd helped put together sometimes resembled a fraud.

That was then: The Bump, the talk of the world aligned against them, the NBA actually aligned against them, the karma tweets and the players-only meetings and the aftermath of trying to force out Erik Spoelstra a month into that thing — and all of it ending in the Heat's staunchest defenders crying “we told you!” a tad too soon, in those halcyon June days just before LeBron's vengeance suddenly became LeBron's folly.

This is now. And things, as they always are with the Heat, are wildly complicated: There have been streaks of remarkable play, a current 15-game home winning streak that makes Miami a kind of fortress against lasting disaster, and funks like this one in which teams like Oklahoma City and even Boston seem real threats to the Heat's plans.

But there are also signs that, as a person entrusted with great fame and scrutiny, LeBron James has grown and matured. And that matters. His off-court failings and idiocies last year had an impact; surely his improvement in that respect can as well.

So who are these guys? Champions borne of being chastened by failure, or the same group of guys — albeit with some more maturity — who despite so much talent are just as capable of long funks that can turn certainty into collapse?

Offering an opinion can be like stepping into a political debate in an election year.

That's in part because there's a peculiarity of the South Florida media that taints the overall coverage of the Heat by automatically pushing back against criticism of the team they routinely cover. It's as if to suggest that Miami is flawed — or that LeBron has trouble in the clutch, or that all NBA truth is not found in the numbers and that championships can't always be riddled from rosters — is an affront not just to South Florida's dignity but to logic everywhere.

This often sets up two sides to the Miami Heat argument even though it's too complicated for two-dimensional thinking: The notion that you must either be for the Heat (They are great! LeBron is the greatest! All criticism is the hate of haters!) or you must be against them (LeBron is a bad person! Miami will never win! LeBron will always choke in every big situation!).

Like any argument that becomes more about defending your ideology than what's in front of you, neither are right.

LeBron doesn't always choke, but for a person of his extreme talents he does choke often — sometimes hard. He changes his routine come playoff time, he has trouble sleeping in the postseason, he feels the weight of that burden and his tendency toward gun-shyness and the not-quite-masked fear he can exhibit in the regular season can mushroom into a full-on meltdown when the going gets tough in the playoffs.

Not always, no. But it happens. It's there, lurking. And pretending it never existed doesn't make it go away.

But this is true, too: LeBron is a world-class athlete, one of the greatest regular-season basketball players ever, and if he ever figures out this issue he may be unstoppable.

I've studied this up close. I spent the entire 2010-11 season with the Heat, and throughout it all, up close and behind the scenes, I saw all of this: The talent, the promise, the potential — and the hollow core which LeBron and his teammates were in danger of falling through.

Last week, when Miami played the Oklahoma City Thunder — the other best team in the NBA — I saw many of the same things. The same things that, during this Heat relapse, have pointed toward the possibility of another disappointing future.

I saw Dwyane Wade livid with the offense. I saw Bosh cowering again. I saw Spoelstra looking like a man who'd aged 10 years. I saw LeBron play tentative basketball late — all things that have dogged this team lately.

This is what is the same with the Heat this year and last: They are imperfect together, they are capable of slipping into serious funks (a no-no in a seven-game series), and their talent and swagger when things go well still masks their tendency to freak out when things do not.

This is what has changed with this team from last year: I think LeBron was humbled by, and he did grow up from, the trouble he brought on himself with The Decision and how he handled it going forward.

I think what he and the Heat did on behalf of Trayvon Martin underscores that fact precisely: Stepping onto that ledge — the right one, but one putting you at odds with too many racially-minded fans —wasn't about selling shoes, building his brand, making Nike happy or seeking adulation like some wayward child star who craves fame and needs the love it offers but who cannot fathom its implications, complications and consequences.

No, what LeBron and his team did when they donned those hoodies, whether you understand it or not, was an act of adult-infused courage. It was LeBron James, whatever else he does well or badly, understanding something beyond himself and acting valiantly on its behalf.

As was, in a smaller but important way, LeBron trying to offer an olive branch earlier in the season when he said he could see himself back in Cleveland someday.

LeBron James, at least a little bit — and in the ways that really matter for a man — has grown up some. That is new, and it is great, and it should be celebrated.

And despite that, the Heat have gone 1-7 during their last eight road games against likely playoff opponents. They've endured double-digit losses to the Thunder, Lakers, Pacers and Celtics. Their offense has stagnated, their defensive energy has fallen off a cliff, and LeBron has gone from remarkable to just good.

Spoelstra said all of last year that this is a process, and indeed that is so. It's a process that's exposed, among many things, LeBron James to enough struggles that he's matured some.

Perhaps we're seeing LeBron 2.0 this season — a man in a hoodie making a statement that transcends his own needs, a guy whose past petulance and cluelessness created just the environment for his own personal growth.

Whether that translates to the Heat 2.0 — and a basketball version of LeBron that has also improved — remains to be seen.

Look, like I said, this is a complicated thing. There are indicators that point up for this team, and indicators that don't.

Personal growth is a part of that. But so is learning to win in the fourth quarter, attacking the rim and rising above your fears. And so far, on the basketball court at least, LeBron & Co. are showing the same warning signs that flashed this time last year.

It's not about loving the Heat. It's not about hating the Heat. It's about sizing them up and trying to see who they are. And right now, they're a grown-up version of the team that struggled to carry the weight of what they created last year — but maybe, at least right now, not grown-up enough.

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