No place like the road for Heat

BY foxsports • February 11, 2011

Feb. 11, 2011

MIAMI -- Beware, home teams. It's when the Miami Heat hit the road that they usually take that next step toward being a championship contender.

All season long, the Heat have thrived as the hated foe in enemy territory. That's where this band of villains -- sorry guys, but that's how they see you -- has unearthed its seminal moments.

It was in Dallas at the end of November when a players-only meeting started the turnaround. It was in LeBron James' December 2 return to Cleveland that this group of hired mercenaries became a team. It was in Los Angeles on Christmas Day when they punked the Lakers and announced that their reversal was for real.

Even in their January loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, it was the seven missed fourth-quarter shots -- and the ball movement and selfless passing that led to them -- in which these guys finally, truly, trusted each other.

The world hates the Heat. The Heat know it. The Heat thrive on it.

That makes the road ground zero for defining changes. It's why Miami has an 18-9 road record, best in the East, and it's why this four-game swing through Detroit, Boston, Indiana and Toronto could hold the key to their next big moment.

"We've banded together on the road," Coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We've really felt like we're up against the world in every arena starting with that Cleveland game. We aren't well liked. We aren't well received where we go. Our guys have really accepted that and responded to that."

It's not just LeBron who has lifted the mantle of villainy and placed it willingly on his head. Spoelstra sees the fire that comes from his players when they look up and see a hated throng rooting for their demise. So have other players.

Good guys revel in protecting their home turf and in being celebrated by the locals. Batman wasn't known for good deeds outside Gotham. Superman spent most of his time in Metropolis.

The good guys feed of the adulation of their home turf. Not bad guys. Bad guys are defined not by where they're from, but by the havoc they wreak.

It doesn't matter where Anton Chigurh, the Joker or Hannibal Lecter came from. All that matters is what they did.

The Heat are villains in the way LeBron described it recently: Not in real life, but certainly on the basketball court.

The Heat play in front of lackluster home crowds that too often show up late and leave early. They also play in front of rowdy, booing, taunting away crowds that bring out their best.

That's why it's the road that produces real change for this team. They simply skate at home. They play well. They sometimes play great. But they rarely venture into any kind of heart of darkness, and so they rarely emerge from a home game changed.

The road is their muse and their catalyst.

"It's brought some of our most focused moments and that's what happens when you're under adversity collectively," Spoelstra said. "You can go one of two ways. You can break. Or you can have incredible collective focus and do something together.

"And that's when we've had some of our best moments so far this season," he said. "That's why we've called ourselves the band of brothers. Because you need a brotherhood when you go into arenas where you don't have one person rooting for you."

They need it. The Heat don't have the luxury of trying to match Boston or the Lakers on the number of games and years they've played together as a team. Their bonding will have to come from fire rather than time.

Now, with Friday's game at Detroit and then a big Sunday game at Boston, they step back into the fire. The next catalyst for Miami is to march into a place like the Garden, embarrass the Celtics on their own floor and leave a better team.

Mark down Sunday on the calendar. It could be the next big step for a team that uses the road to alter itself in ways that last.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter.

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