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Title only option for Heat success -- but are they too brittle to finish job?

by | CBSSports.com
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Mike Miller, along with Battier and Anthony, will see most of the playoff bench minutes. (US Presswire)  
Mike Miller, along with Battier and Anthony, will see most of the playoff bench minutes. (US Presswire)  

It is an unapologetically arrogant bunch.

The Miami Heat were baptized in the name of haughtiness the moment they threw themselves the spotlights-and-smoke party celebrating the free-agent signings of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join forces with Miami holdover Dwyane Wade before the 2010-11 NBA season. James immediately dared to promise multiple titles ... and now comes a second opportunity to deliver the first of them after having failed a year ago.

It's true how the league's very best teams are measured by what they do in the playoffs.

But it's also true that the Heat are measured most severely among those very best teams. What franchise other than Miami will be considered a disappointment without the trophy? There isn't one. Chicago and Oklahoma City are still growing into themselves. San Antonio has been a surprise. Boston? The L.A. Lakers? A title earned in either place would be a startling development. So would a successful defense by Dallas.

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The regular season is a forced march even in best circumstance, which didn't exist this time around. The compacted schedule in the aftermath of a management-labor dispute resulted in a truncated 66-game slog that tested the resolve and health of players while coaches strategized in terms of how best to use -- and not use -- personnel.

But are the Heat, despite coach Erik Spoelstra's fierce attention to resting players (see: Wade and Bosh, most notably), too fragile physically to win the four best-of-7 series necessary to earn a championship?

How odd.

The question a year ago at this time had to do with the Heat's mental toughness. They were despised. James had been insensitive in how he made public his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami, and the Heat absorbed loads of venom as a result of the episode. And then came the over-the-top AmericanAirlines Arena show, during which James, Wade and Bosh painted themselves as every rival's favorite target.

It turned into a heavy emotional burden for the Heat to carry. No, it wasn't the reason Miami lost to Dallas in the NBA Finals last year -- the Mavericks were the better team in the series' stretch run -- but the Heat could have done without the self-imposed yoke.

Now, though, the Heat seem to have less vitriol to deal with, and are much more inclined to ignore whatever nastiness is voiced anyway.

Instead, the question now has to do with the Heat's health.

Wade has a dislocated index finger on his left (non-shooting) hand, which might be one of those naggingly uncomfortable injuries that too often compromises a player.

"You're going to have to adapt," Wade said the other day.

Bosh has been protected by Spoelstra lately for something they've called "muscle fatigue" of the legs, which sounds potentially problematic. That it's a hamstring problem is a recent revelation.

"It's just been a weird season from the get-go," Bosh said not long ago.

You get the point.

But can the Heat core stand up if asked to log increased minutes of court time -- as usually is the case during the playoffs -- as the playing rotation contracts? Don't be surprised if Miami's standard starting lineup consists of James, Wade, Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers, with Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Joel Anthony the primary reserves.

The Heat carry themselves with an unwavering confidence, and fancy themselves a flip-the-switch team capable of turning on its brilliance whenever it chooses. That they have lost road games to the Lakers, Orlando, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Boston, Chicago again and Boston again -- all playoff teams and all since March 1 -- fazes them not a bit.

To be fair, Spoelstra's lineup experimentation almost certainly cost the Heat at least a couple of late-season losses. The Heat chose what Spoelstra labeled a "maintenance" health program ahead of full-steam pursuit of the top-seeded position for the Eastern Conference playoffs, which Chicago owns.

The New York Knicks or Philadelphia 76ers await Miami when the first round begins Saturday in AmericanAirlines Arena.

The question this year won't concern the Heat's ability to cope with hatred.

The question this year is whether they're as strong of body as they are of mind.

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