x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Heat rising to the challenge in NBA

An ominous sign for rivals as Miami cast champions Dallas Mavericks aside.

LeBron James chipped in with 37 points and 10 rebounds as the Miami Heat cruised to victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.
LeBron James chipped in with 37 points and 10 rebounds as the Miami Heat cruised to victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.

The NBA season began on Sunday, some seven weeks behind schedule, but the focus again is where it was when the past season ended: on the Miami Heat.

In their first game, the Heat immediately demonstrated why nearly everyone with an opinion on the league has predicted that Miami will capture the 2011/12 championship.

Not that the attention is new, in south Florida. The Heat were a cause celebre last season, after LeBron James and Chris Bosh chose to join Dwayne Wade in the south, a Big Three that generated high expectations and generally delivered on them - until stumbling in the NBA finals and falling to the Dallas Mavericks.

The champions and near-champions were matched in Dallas, one of the NBA's five Christmas Day games. The Mavs revelled in last season as they hoisted a championship banner. The Heat, however, made an equally dramatic statement of intent about the current season.

Humbled by the Mavs in the decisive game of the NBA finals last June, the Heat destroyed Dallas on opening day, leading by 33 before cruising to a 105-94 victory.

Miami's team seem motivated by the idea of "unfinished business", and with James operating at peak efficiency it is hard to imagine who might keep them from a title this season.

He scored 37 points, took 10 rebounds, had six assists and two blocked shots in an overpowering performance. Wade added 26 points and eight rebounds.

The Heat's three stars remain in place, but they have added the versatile Shane Battier and welcomed the return of Udonis Haslem, injured for much of the past season.

"It's different from last year and we're a little more together and more comfortable," Wade said.

If the expectations of the Heat are familiar, they come with less scorn. The Heat last year were the team NBA fans loved to hate; their pre-season celebrations were considered undignified, and the way the team was assembled seemed not quite fair.

The 2011/12 Heat appear to be a more focused and more serious team. One that has that first awkward season behind them.

And then there is James, who turns 27 on Friday. He remains the league's most compelling figure. He, too, figures to have grown, and his ninth season may be the first that ends with a championship ring.

"I just wasn't myself last year," James said. "Throughout the whole year, there was a lot going on last year on the court and off the court. And so once I was able to figure the things out to get better individually on the court and off the court, I was able to focus on my game and get better. I'm happy where we are. I'm happy where I am right now. This is the best I've felt in a long time."