Miami Heat: 10 Storylines Going Into Their First Game Against the Celtics
After months of speculation, analysis and wishes of failure from sportswriters whose team allegiance lies firmly outside of South Beach, the time has finally come for the Miami Heat to make its long-awaited season debut.
Fittingly, they will face the Boston Celtics in their season premier. The Celtics appear to be not only the Heat's biggest threat in the Eastern Conference in their bid to advance to the finals, but also the team that ousted two of its big three stars in the playoffs last season.
The Celtics beat LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in six games, setting the stage for "The Decision" heard around the world, while Dwyane Wade's Heat succumbed to the deep, experienced Celtics in five games in the first round.
This is a game that will finally begin to answer some of the questions about how good each of these teams are, as well as, provides a window into a season-long rivalry that could very well decide the conference.
Here are the top 10 storylines going into the game.
10. Eddie House Returns To Boston
Eddie House, Boston's fiery guard off the bench for two-and-a-half seasons, returns to the town in which he won the team's 2008 championship. Despite House's unheralded contributions throughout the team's 2008 and 2009 playoff runs in which he made several key baskets in the NBA Finals against the Lakers (especially, in the famous game 4 comeback from a 24-point deficit) and Game 2 against the Magic in 2009 when he hit 4-4 from 3-point territory and scored 31.
However, House was not a particularly effective distributor of the basketball throughout his Celtics years, and Boston needed a pure point guard to back up Rajon Rondo, so the Celtics traded House (along with Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens) to the New York Knicks for Nate Robinson. After House was waived by New York, he was signed by the Miami Heat to spread the floor and open up the driving lanes for the big three.
Heat fans are hoping that his words of "[The Miami Heat] will be the Celtics on steroids," will turn out to be a prophetic proclamation, and this is his first opportunity to play against his former team.
It's hard to say what to expect from House in this game. He struggled with a shoulder injury throughout preseason, which prevented him from playing many minutes; however, in the game against Atlanta, he shot 3-3 from three-point range and appeared to have his stroke back. He has also lost a significant amount of weight, which will hopefully aid in his play on the defensive end.
9. Erik Spoelstra's Stint On The Hot Seat Begins
Many analyst have predicted that Erik Spoelstra could be ousted if the team starts the season slowly, especially considering the amount of talent that he has been given to work with. One would assume he would be the first blamed if the team fails to live up to expectations.
"Coach Spo," as LeBron James calls him, will face more pressure in these next six months than he has ever faced in his life. His team will begin the season against a Coach of the Year and NBA Champion winning Doc Rivers.
This game will be an early test of Spoelstra's ability to game plan, prepare his team and handle the pressure of winning in a hostile environment.
Meanwhile, you can bet the farm that Rivers' locker room pep talk to his team will certainly involve the Heat's accession as favorites to win the Eastern Conference before the team has even played a full game together. Indeed, it is Rivers' team who currently holds the Eastern Conference crown.
It will be interesting to see how Spoelstra plays the Celtics.
Will the Heat try to use its speed and athleticism to wear down Boston? If the Heat trail early in the game, will Spoelstra call quick timeouts or let his team play though rough stretches? If the Celtics are playing their big lineup of the O'Neals and Kevin Garnett, how will Speolstra match that size? Will he play Dexter Pittman in the game?
The game will be a chance for Spoelstra to gain the team's trust and show that he can match wits with one of the best coaches in the league.
8. Shaq Plays Against His Former Teammates
Shaquille O'Neal's stint with the the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers had a similar trajectory: Each began with great anticipation and purpose, followed by disappointment, then by a period of excellence before sputtering out to irrelevance.
When Shaq joined Wade on the Heat in 2004, there were expectations that the team would win a title. But after securing the best record in the Eastern Conference at 59-23, Wade suffered a strained rib muscle in game 5 of the conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, which plagued him for the remainder of the series as the Heat lost in 7 at home.
The following year, the Heat advanced to the finals and beat the Mavericks to win the title. But the next season, with Wade once again injured during the playoffs, the defending champs didn't win one game in the postseason and lost to the Chicago Bulls 4-0. Shaq was unceremoniously traded to the Suns the next season.
In 2009, Shaq joined LeBron James to, according to him: "win a ring for the King." The Cavs took a month to assimilate Shaq into the lineup before racing out to the best record in the NBA at 61-21. The record was all the more impressive considering the fact that Shaq missed most of the second half of the season with a thumb injury.
But despite Shaq's strong first playoff game against the Bulls, where he scored 12 points in the first half, the Cavaliers were beaten by the Celtics in the second round.
Now, with Boston, Shaq is decidedly more concerned with winning his fifth ring and will certainly look to make his presence felt when his two former teammates drive down the lane.
7. They Finally Announce Their
In a recent interview, Wade, James and Lebron mentioned that by the start of the season they would finally agree on a nickname for their All-Star trio.
Some of the nickname suggestions have been absolutely terrible like "Miami Thrice" (I hope they retire that one soon.), "Three's Company" (Ugh. Who's Chrissy and who's Jack?), "MV3" (I get it, but it's a bit flat), and unbelievably, "Riley's Angels" (Doesn't this suggest that the teams will receive directives from Riley and not coach Spo?)
Kudos to Kobe Bryant for coming up with the only tolerably good nickname: "Voltron" (A reference to the 1980's animated import from Japan about a team of pilots who commanded five robots which could combine to form one devastating robot, Voltron).
It also helps that, according to the animated introduction notes, Voltron is "loved by good and feared by evil", which is a gloriously prescient repudiation of the Heat's plethora of critics.
That would be my pick for the team's new nickname, although I don't think Wade, Bosh and LeBron want to use the name that Kobe suggests.
Hopefully, the team can have fewer injury issues in the regular season than they did during the pre-season. Otherwise their moniker might become "Miami's Three Minutes and Leave the Game With Bad Hamstring."
6. The Heat Haters Have a Field Day Following a Loss
The Miami Heat season debut will be one of the most analyzed games in recent memory. Pundits from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and right here on Bleacher Report will be writing lengthy pieces about how the results of the game will prove what they had predicted all along about this team, and that those in disagreement need a reality check.
Say for instance, the Celtics pull this one out. The Heat start the season 0-1. After the Heat haters do their celebratory dance of joy and "I told you so" chest bump, we will be treated with a flood of blogged comments from critics who will engage is a spirited back and forth about the "real ramifications of the game" with Heat fans.
This will result in both defensive responses from fans and indignant dismissals by Heat haters as all sides will try to convince those few neutral parties out there the validity of their point.
A few arguments you're likely to see from Haters:
-"Joel Anthony sucks, where was his rebounding in that game. The Heat can't win with that scrub of a player."
-"The Celtics are just the better team people. Deal with it. Boston's going back to the finals and LeChoke is going to fail again in the playoffs. Kobe's the real King!"
-"The Heat clearly couldn't handle the size and experience the Celtics bring to the table. They were outplayed and outclassed."
Meanwhile, the Heat fans will be forced to put some type of positive spin on the game regardless of the margin of loss. Here are a few of their arguments:
-"It's just one game people. No panic."
-"Seriously, it's just one game."
-"Man, the refs didn't call anything in this game. LeBron and Bosh drove to the basket and were clearly raked across the arms but no foul. What are they looking at out there?"
This will make for a spirited conversation in the hours after the game, but ultimately it will be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Last year, the Celtics were 1-3 in the regular season against the Orlando Magic, but in the playoffs, the Celtics beat the Magic in six.
5. The Heat Fans Celebrating Following a Victory
Congratulations Heat fans!
Your team pulled out their first major test of the new season. Plus, they did it against a deep, experienced, veteran Celtic team on the road. They answered questions about their chemistry, defensive intensity, depth and health by defeating the team that was presumed to dominate them in the paint.
Your prize will be visiting your favorite sports blog and finding the Heat haters eerily silent. They won't be talking all that much. The best that you can hope for is an article on Bleacher Report titled, Why, Despite This Victory, the Heat Still Pretty Much Suck. That will be followed by a slide show featuring pictures of LeBron James missing perimeter shots, Joel Anthony mistiming his rebound jump and Wade massaging his hamstring.
The Heat haters will also be looking to find a positive spin on the Heat victory:
-"Well, it's just one game. You guys still don't have a center."
-"The Celtics didn't need to win this game anyway. They have nothing to prove. The Heat had something to prove and they won...for now. The Celtics will get them next time."
-"It means nothing. Boston lost at home to New Jersey last year. I figure this Heat team is maybe about as good at the Nets. lol. But Boston will win the next game."
Meanwhile, the Heat fans will be spinning it as well:
-"Can you say 80-2 record?"
-That's it, bring on the playoffs, these guys are ready."
4. Both Teams Looking To Send a Message
When the Heat step foot on the parquet floor in Boston, it will have a familiar feel for Wade and James.
Both ended their seasons last year by walking off of it, as the Celtics eliminated the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers in round one and two respectively in last year's Eastern Conference playoffs. It was a difficult end for both, but it set the stage for their eventual union.
Now, after three months of hearing about how the Heat are now the team to beat in the East, expect the Celtics to approach this game with an extra chip on their shoulders. They want to make a statement to the Heat that they are still the Beast of the East and all roads to the finals go through gang green.
Meanwhile, the Heat, after spending the weeks following "The Decision" as the focus of disdain from every NBA town outside of Miami, may enter this one a little chippy themselves.
Wade and James have some very bad memories of Boston from last year and may use that extra motivation to push them to strong games.
It will be interesting seeing which team makes the statement in this first game.
Will it be the Heat announcing a possible changing of the guard in the East, or the Celtics announcing that they are still atop the mountain of best teams in the Eastern Conference?
3. The Heat Team Chemistry
If you have been listening to the most vocal critics of the Miami Heat, you have almost certainly heard the theory that the team's inability to develop chemistry in one year will be the primary reason they will fail to reach their potential this season.
Apparently, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are good enough to be considered among the best players in the NBA, but not bright or gifted enough to know how to sacrifice their games once they begin playing together.
Nevertheless, this game will represent the first true glimpse into the true validity of that theory.
I've always believed that if a team has a group of talented players who are committed to a single goal (winning), potential pitfalls, like chemistry, can be resolved.
But it could be interesting to watch it play out during their first full-game as a collective unit (albeit minus Mike Miller). How will LeBron and Wade play with each other? How will the team get Chris Bosh into the flow of the offense? Will the Heat bench play well against arguably the more lauded Celtic bench?
The abscence of Dwyane Wade for all but three minutes of preseason may mean that he must use the first few games to regain his flow within a competitive environment, but I expect the Heat to try to get him involved offensively early in this game.
Watching how this team seeks to use the strengths of the big three while also allowing the role players to get involved and play their parts as well could go a long way toward answering a lot of questions about how good the Heat can really be this year.
2. The Fans' Reaction to LeBron James
In 1929, when great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel premiered his surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, he famously placed rocks in his pockets to throw back at the audience who he feared would be inspired to voice their displeasure with him and his film through physical means.
LeBron James may not have to carry rocks in his pockets just yet (although he may want to consider it when the team visits Cleveland to play), but he certainly should be prepared for a cascade of boos that will assuredly welcome him during warms-ups and when he does anything on the court of statistical significance.
James' summer could not have been worse for his public image if he'd been caught taking money from a church collection tray to buy a group of underaged kids liquor. It was a truly startling drop that saw James bouncing like a pinball off one PR miscue after another:
"I'm taking my talents to South Bench."
"We're going to make the world and the league know that the Heat are back."
"I know what it's like not to have help from teammates."
"I think racism, certainly can be a factor in the treatment."
While I believe that the criticism has been extreme and unnecessarily ugly, I will concede that LeBron's best method of response is not in the form of tweets, but in the form of his play. If he plays with a focused sense of purpose in this game, he may not win over the hardcore haters, but he will certainly show his critics that he does want to win.
As once maligned athletes before him have shown, in the long run, winning is one true means to rebuild ones shattered image.
1. Dwyane Wade's Health
This is hands down the biggest storyline going into the first game.
When Wade left the first preseason game after a mere three minutes with a sore hamstring, the team shrugged it off as just a minor strain that will not impact him for a significant amount of time.
However, as the next seven preseason games went by without even a sight of Wade in practice, most pundits began asking the logical question:
How bad is the injury really?
Teams are notorious for with-holding the severity of player injuries, and until Wade is seen playing a game with his new teammates for more than the time it takes to read this slideshow, the rumors will continue to swirl about his health and whether his injury will impact this team's title hopes.
Wade's return is especially important in light of the thumb injury to Mike Miller, which could significantly impact the team's outside shooting in the next six to eight weeks of his abscence. Wade is going to have to return and assimilate into the team with a minimum amount of practice in recent weeks with his new team mates. All eyes will be on him to see if there are any lingering effects of the injury.