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Miami ready to test evolution

Heat reveal how far they’ve come

Kevin Garnett appreciates the transition the Heat have made from just a trio of stars to a team. Kevin Garnett appreciates the transition the Heat have made from just a trio of stars to a team. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 30, 2011

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WALTHAM — It was the first game of the season, the first chance to see the new Big Three, as the Heat stepped onto the court at TD Garden to face the Celtics in October.

There was supposed to be magic and dominance, and a win for Miami. Except the team that experts said wouldn’t lose — couldn’t lose — did exactly that, falling behind by 19 points in the second half, before losing, 88-80.

The hype was there. The Heat’s game wasn’t.

“Game 1 in Boston, they made a lot about it,’’ Miami’s Dwyane Wade said this week. “We look at it as, we lost by 8 points. We did some good things again the next time we played them in Boston, we lost by [3] points. It’s just about getting over the hump. I think, obviously, in Game 4 we got over the hump and took a convincing win.

“But none of that means nothing anymore. It’s a fresh slate for both teams and we have to take care of home court and focus on Game 1 on Sunday.’’

And as little as that meeting in the regular-season opener meant, looking back at it gives perspective to the transition the Heat have made. It’s an evolution the Celtics can understand. They remember bringing together three prodigious talents, learning to work together, learning to trust each other.

“When you go through different things and you grow some tough skin, it seems like — whether it’s poor play during some course of the year, winning a bunch of games, all that — maybe you go through things, you see what the guys in the locker room are like, you find out what you’re really made of as a team,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “And they seem to have been through that a little bit. It’s given them tough skin to the point where they know who they are vs. trying to find an identity.’’

It wasn’t easy early for the Heat. They looked lost at times, unable to find a way to make it work. Miami started the season 9-8, not exactly championship caliber.

And that goes double for a team that was predicted by some, including ABC analyst and former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, to eclipse the 1995-96 Bulls’ record of 72 victories in a season. The Heat didn’t, falling far short at 58, not even enough for the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

“You never want to go through a period of time like that where you’re 9-8 and you’re expected to be a lot better,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But ultimately that was one of our early breakthroughs in the season. We had to improve. We had to get to know each other and we’re getting to know each other in adverse circumstances and that helps you connect quicker. It helps you get to the root of some problems quicker and we were able to come out of that strong.’’

And, Spoelstra said, that might have prepared the Heat for the different brand of basketball that’s played in the postseason. It might have, along with their talent, brought them to a second-round series against the Celtics.

“Because of what they went through, they’re closer, they have a better feel for each other,’’ said the Celtics’ Glen Davis. “The way they’ve overcome their obstacles, that’s how you build championship teams, especially when you don’t have chemistry off the jump. If everybody doesn’t really buy in off the jump, you’ve got problems. You’ve got to go through these war wounds to get that chemistry.’’

Just like the Celtics did, as they learned and grew and figured out coach Doc Rivers’s system. They gained confidence. They understood each other.

“I just think they’re better,’’ Rivers said. “I just think they’re better at everything. They’re doing the same things. They’re better at doing what they were trying to do earlier in the year. They’re more comfortable.

“You can make the case they’re one of the teams that didn’t make change [via trade] during the season, and so they grew as the year went on, where everybody else made changes and had to stop and restart. I think they trust each other a lot better than they did early on.’’

That was inevitable with time. Or at least logical.

With more games and more practices and more repetitions, the Heat have gone from a collection of stars to a team. They have figured out a lot. And as the playoffs progress, they will figure out more.

“No question we’ve come a long way and we’ve squeezed everything we possible could have out of the regular season to hopefully prepare us for now,’’ Spoelstra said. “We had to go through a lot of pains and some adversity. We had to improve, connect, get to know each other and develop a game that we thought could be successful. That took time, that took us five months.

“We’ve said this now for a while. We feel that we’re one of if not the most improved team in the league since the end of November, but we’ve got to prove it.’’

Julian Benbow of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Miami. Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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