Beware, Orlando: You've fueled the Heat, too
ORLANDO — This past summer, Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith questioned LeBron James' competitive spirit. Last month, the New York Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire said no one fears the Heat. On Sunday, Kevin Durant called Chris Bosh a "fake tough guy."
A word to the wise, fellas: don't tug on a tiger's tail.
Especially once it's learned to pounce.
"The simple fact that it's a division opponent, that means a lot," James said of the Heat's Thursday showdown with the Magic. "Trying to win your division is very key. And also playing exceptionally well on the road is definitely key. That definitely helps later on in the season. And being an Orlando team that basically said a lot of things about us in the offseason, that definitely adds a little bit to the fire."
Here is Smith's comment from this past summer. It's the first of a lot of ire -- some well-deserved -- sent toward the Heat and their marquee player by NBA insiders this season.
"I thought he was, I guess, more of a competitor," Smith said.
For a time, all the hard feelings and rush of rejection LeBron and his team faced had an impact.
But since getting through November and figuring out how to embrace life as the bad guys, this is a Heat team that's been at its best when they've felt the hate. They've been at their most lackadaisical when they haven't.
Strategically speaking, only three teams have a reason to go at the Heat on emotion alone. Two have the actual mental toughness, killer instinct and bad-ass pedigree to bring out that anger -- to go toe-to-toe on the hatred scale -- and still stand a strong chance of winning. One is Boston. The other is (maybe) the Lakers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, had they not abdicated their role to stand up for their city, also could have powered their games against the Heat on hatred. Real hatred.
The Cavs are the only team that can summon -- that should have summoned -- an emotional representation of their city that might have carried them to victory, or at the very least respect and love for their city.
But the Cavaliers passed on being Cleveland's team, and that leaves the league with limited teams that can face the Heat when the Heat have their blood up.
For those of you NBA players not swathed in gold and purple or green and white, get a new game plan, starting with this: Get past yourself and all the anger you're feeling.
The recipe for beating the Heat isn't to look them in the eye and challenge them with insults, ultimatums or snide comments. It's to suck the venom out of them with smiles, handshakes and harmonious words.
Teams like Orlando and players like Durant need to stop being all Godfather and go Bill Russell on these guys.
Russell was able to lull Wilt Chamberlain to a point of congeniality that dulled Chamberlain's edge. Russell saved his disdain for Wilt the Stilt until retirement, when his obvious hatred for his foe could no longer serve as fuel.
"I know our guys remember all these comments, and we've already done that during the course of the year," head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Obviously, our guys have a lot of pride, though, and you don't forget things that are said."
Spoelstra went on to say they're focused on bigger things than what folks say. Things like championships. But anyone who's been around this team knows anger and resentment has brought them together, which means anger and resentment can play a significant role in getting them where they want to go.
Take notice Otis. No need to say anything disparaging. Same for you, Stan. And Dwight. And Amar'e. And everyone else.
This is about championships, not egos -- a lesson LeBron, if the Heat are lucky, is starting to learn.
To beat them, it's best teams like Orlando learn it too. The Heat are simply better when they're pissed off.
Don't turn The King into a warrior and his team into a band of brothers any more than they already are. Keep them, as best you can, as a group of guys taking themselves for granted.
It's a long shot, but for all but a handful of teams, it's the best strategy there is.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.