The Miami Heat insulted the purists. You cannot just throw three stars together and win a championship, the guardians of the game of basketball said. Not in a sport so dependent on teamwork, familiarity and cohesion.
But in Year 2 of their grand experiment, the Heat did just that. They proved the experts wrong while unifying an often fragmented and transient community of fans. Those fans showered the Heat with applause and affection Tuesday night as the team held its ring ceremony, raised its second championship banner and defeated the Boston Celtics, 120-107, in the season opener for both teams.
The loudest ovation was reserved for the last player called, LeBron James, who was the subject of national scorn after he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for South Beach but whose performance, and leadership, in leading the Heat to the title last spring has validated him as more than just an individual talent.
The question is, Can he and his team-mates, most notably Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, do it again? Their season opening victory provided no definitive answers. No opener ever does. But it did give observers a glimpse of a team that may be even more dangerous this season.
Part of the reason is the addition of the veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen, who came over from the Celtics as a free agent, taking less money in the hopes of winning a second NBA championship of his own.
Allen came off the bench earlier in the week and scored 19 points in 30 minutes, making five of seven shots. Still, he admitted he lost his focus at times while playing against his former team.
“I had to stop myself a couple of times in the beginning,” he said. “I would run down the floor and ask myself, Who am I supposed to be guarding? “My first instinct was to guard the Miami jerseys, but luckily I caught myself. My brain has to be switched over right now.”
While Allen makes the adjustment, Heat players and coaches are thrilled he is on their side. He made the first shot he took -- a 3-pointer, naturally -- when the Celtics left him wide open in the corner.
“You’d think we’d know better,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. At one point, Allen went to the Boston bench, where he hugged Rivers. He also tried to greet Kevin Garnett, but the Celtics center ignored him. The Heat-Celtics rivalry showed even more intensity when Rajon Rondo was given a flagrant foul for grabbing Wade around the neck.
“He clotheslined me with two hands,” Wade said. “The league will take care of it. It was a punk play by him.”
Wade was asked if he told Rondo it was a punk play. “I just did,” Wade shot back. “There are a lot of cameras here.”
Wade is another reason for Heat optimism. He appeared to have lost a step last season and has battled injuries. But his off-season knee surgery seems to have him back at his former level. And when James sat out the final nine minutes of last week’s game with cramps, Wade said it felt like old times.
“It felt good,” he said. “It’s kind of what I’m used to, guys coming to me. But the biggest thing was knowing that there wasn’t anything major with LeBron. We have a deep team.”
Another example of that depth can be found in Bosh. Earlier this week, the Heat’s championship banner was raised to keep company with the 2006 flag, the rings were handed out, and James was announced last as fans chanted: “MVP! MVP!”
James had virtually no rest in the offseason, winning a gold medal at the London Olympics and making the celebrity rounds. He also traveled to Asia twice in one month’s time, for a promotional appearance and then a pair of Heat exhibition games. James said his cramps were caused by the heat in the building and not his exhausting schedule. “It’s a one-time thing,” he said.
Despite all the positives gleaned from the Heat’s performance Tuesday, repeating as an NBA champion is never as easy as it may seem. The Heat appear to have learned their lesson from 2006, when they won the NBA title but did little to improve in the offseason.
Perimeter shooting was targeted by the Heat in the offseason, even though Miami ranked fourth in the league in field-goal percentage and 10th in 3-point percentage in 2011-12. Besides Allen, the Heat added Rashard Lewis, who had 10 points Tuesday on 4-of-5 shooting.
One could argue that Allen, 37, is past his prime, and the same thing could be said about Lewis, 33. But James loves the additions, especially Allen.
And maybe that is one more reason to keep the Heat haters busy.