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Humbled last season, James, Heat refocus

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 27, 2011
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MIAMI - The Miami Heat consider last season a lesson learned. They learned it’s difficult to win an NBA championship with three stars thrown together quickly. They learned it’s pretentious to promise multiple titles. And they learned it’s foolish to assume star power alone would beat a savvy team playing to erase a decade-long stigma of choking.

Lessons learned.

The Heat return this season humbled, with a determined push to win a championship, but this time they’re shunning the spotlight. There has been no bold predictions or braggadocio, nothing but credit offered to the Dallas Mavericks.

When the Mavericks raised their first championship banner Christmas Day, their opponents, the Heat, might as well have covered their ears and started singing “la-la-la-la.’’ They walked back to the locker room and pretended the ceremony never occurred.

Then they went out and destroyed the Mavericks, 105-94, with LeBron James resembling the greatest player on the planet with 37 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.

It was a humbling summer for James, who was chided universally for his fourth-quarter failures in the NBA Finals. Jokes surfaced. His desire was questioned. Had the Miami lifestyle turned him into a laid-back softy? He hardly resembled the Clubber Lang-type personality he had with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Although it was only one game, James displayed a glimpse of how he will approach his second season in Miami - with more vigor and passion.

“It’s a concerted effort going into the season and into this game to be aggressive, get to the free throw line and try to make my free throws,’’ James said after Sunday’s game. “Put as much pressure on the defense as I can and try to do that all night. It’s a good start for us. But it was one game. We have a long way to go and we have to continue to be better.’’

James acknowledged that fans and critics appreciated the Cleveland LeBron more than the Miami LeBron. With the Cavaliers, he was the leader of an upstart bunch of overachievers trying to bring a championship to a working-class city. An Akron boy trying to bring Ohio into vogue. The Miami LeBron abandoned his trademark work ethic and embraced the villain role placed on him because of how he departed Cleveland.

It was an uncomfortable fit, but James spent the season playing that role. So when the Heat were defeated by the Mavericks in six games, and James averaged 17.8 points (9 below his season average), he was pelted with condemnation, blamed for the downfall.

“I was in a hole for at least two to three weeks,’’ said James. “I was doing absolutely nothing, talking to absolutely nobody. I was moping around. I decided to get back up, get better and work on my craft. I studied the game, studied the Finals and studied the whole playoffs. I was seeing ways I could help myself get better as an individual player, which will help our team get better.’’

The Heat aren’t significantly different from last year. They shed aging veterans Mike Bibby, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire, and Eddie House and replaced them with defensive ace Shane Battier, rookie point guard Norris Cole, and Eddy Curry.

James has taken responsibility for the fate of this team, and has set the tone with his intensity.

Dwyane Wade, who was stellar in the Finals, said the criticism and shortcomings definitely affected James during the lockout.

“We talked and I understand what he was going through and I was going through a lot,’’ Wade said. “There’s a lot on his shoulders. There’s a lot on my shoulders. I offered words of encouragement but at the same time we had to handle this individually.’’

Wade doesn’t seem to mind being Miami’s second option as long as James seizes the opportunity to become the primary scorer. During the Finals, James was passive and tentative. On Sunday, he was unstoppable.

“The difference [in the opener] was he was very aggressive,’’ Wade said. “Not concerned what anyone was saying about him. “Go out there and play.’’

There may never be a more scrutinized two-time league MVP than James. “The Decision’’ allowed his detractors to rake over his failures like vultures. And there was little he could say in response, so he said nothing. He said he promised himself and his team to return retooled and refocused.

“I beat myself up on a lot of stuff,’’ he said. “I didn’t talk to nobody. I didn’t say nothing to anybody or doing anything. I just moped around and let it sink all in until it’s time to refocus. I beat myself up about the Finals, of course. I’m glad I was able to get myself out of it, get back to work.

“There was a lot going on, on the court and off the court. So, once I was able to figure the things 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 I am right now. It’s the best I’ve felt in a long time.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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