The Miami Heat are less feared and more loved than ever before.
This is not a coincidence.
Consider the events of Jan. 29. When Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder strolled into American Airlines Arena and, after falling behind by 18 points in the first quarter, coasted by LeBron James’ Heat 112-95, there was something missing: vitriol.
(Also missing was any kind of transition offense, but I digress.)
This is unusual. The perceived contrast between the Thunder and the Heat—glamor vs. reserve, homegrown vs. imported, LeBron vs. Durant—has always inspired a special flavor of snark from the Internet "pundits."
That night? The silence was deafening.
The subtle shift in public sentiment is reflected in other (completely scientific) measures. In 2011, SBNation published an article titled "100 Reasons to Hate the Miami Heat." In 2012, it gave us “25 Reasons to (Still) Hate Miami.”
By 2013, Business Insider could only find six.
Win or lose, people simply don’t dump on the Heat like they used to. This strange evolution, like all else with the franchise, starts with a curious decision a certain four-time MVP made on July 8, 2010.
"The Decision" was the Heat's original sin. And one that, until recently, they haven't been entirely absolved of.
It looked bad and it played worse. The best basketball player on the planet dumping his hard-luck hometown to come to beautiful Miami and form the most loaded team in recent NBA history with his two millionaire buddies.
And he announced it on national television.
The public was aghast. The new-look Heat were too good, too arrogant, a Frankenstein’s monster of a fantasy team come screaming into terrible, perfect life. People despised them with righteous self-satisfaction.
"There are plenty of good reasons for fighting," Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, "but no good reason to ever hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty hates with you too."
This advice was not heeded.
When Miami lost in spectacular fashion to the overachieving Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, the modal response was something like jubilation. Order was restored. Good had triumphed over evil.
LeBron and the Heat, so overwhelmed by the animus, even began to conceive of themselves as the bad guys. They put on the black hat.
"It basically turned me into somebody I wasn't," James admitted to Rachel Nichols (then of ESPN) in December 2011. "You start to hear 'the villain,' now you have to be the villain, you know, and I started to buy into it."
But then something funny happened.
The rancor had reached such a pitch—the criticism against LeBron became so frenzied and venomous—that Miami started to feel almost like an underdog. We told ourselves so many times that a team built like the Heat couldn’t win that we actually started to believe it.
And so when Miami got heroic performances by LeBron to overcome 2-1, 3-2 and 1-0 deficits in the final three rounds of the 2012 postseason, there was legitimate surprise.
The Heat's vulnerability was brought into starker relief last postseason when it needed seven games to get by a bigger, nastier Pacers team and seven more—and a miracle shot by Ray Allen—to edge by the Spurs for their second straight title.
Now in 2014, where age, expectations and the wear and tear of all those extra basketball games have taken a further toll on the team, the Heat seem downright human. And people, it turns out, like humans.
Dwyane Wade, with a sore knee that’s held him out of 13 games already, is not the player he once was. And yet he plays on, grinds, calibrates his game to accommodate the limits advanced age and the steady erosion of his athleticism have foisted on him.
The supporting cast seems similarly diminished. Ray Allen is shooting 35 percent from three-point range, the lowest conversion rate of his career. With each passing month, Michael Beasley looks less like the league’s finest reclamation project and more like Michael Beasley. Meanwhile, Greg Oden is a long shot to contribute, Rashard Lewis doesn’t help much and Shane Battier just looks 35.
Even LeBron James, while in the midst of what, by some measures, is his finest season, has ceded the MVP lead to Durant—his younger rival.
The mighty Heat have become (gasp) vulnerable. It's this vulnerability, real or perceived, that's cracked open the door of public sentiment just enough for something like affection to sneak through.
“Please, you know I don't like classically beautiful women. Give me a nice nose break or a lazy eye,” Johnny Drama told Turtle in an old episode of Entourage, explaining that, in order to really forge a romantic connection, he needed his partner to have a few flaws.
Well, the Heat have had their nose broken a few times. And, like Drama, we love them all the more for it.