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Heat on a mission as series opens

James, Wade set to carry big load

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 28, 2012
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MIAMI - Erik Spoelstra watched Celtics-Sixers Game 7 eating dinner, no notepad in sight, no preparations being made. As Boston and Philadelphia played Saturday night for the chance to face his Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, the coach just sat there. But when it was over, when the Celtics had won, Spoelstra picked up his pen, turned on the tape, and got to work.

“I had sleep the night before,’’ Spoelstra said. “I wasn’t expecting to be greedy.’’

There will be work for the Heat, despite their heavily favored status over the Celtics, who have played Miami tough during the regular season. The Heat did, after all, lose Chris Bosh in their series against the Pacers, and now are missing a key cog in their version of the Big Three.

So starting Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, instead of the offense being shared between Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, there only will be the latter two, who have provided the Heat with extraordinary performances in the three straight wins that knocked the Pacers out of the playoffs, after being down two games to one.

In those three wins, James was sublime, averaging 32.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8 assists, and shooting 55.1 percent. Wade wasn’t far behind, averaging 33 points on 61.5 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists.

“Obviously me and LeBron, we’re the key to our team,’’ Wade said. “Both of us have to play well. That doesn’t mean we have to both score 40 or 30, but we have to play well to give ourselves a legit chance to beat this team.

“[Bosh] was a big part of what we did last year when we beat them in five. So we’ve got to find a way to make up for it.’’

Spoelstra had said Saturday that those kind of nights have to be the “norm’’ for the Heat for them to advance. It’s a tall order. But James and Wade hardly seem cowed.

Especially not James.

“He loves it,’’ Spoelstra said. “He loves the challenge. That’s what makes him special.’’

Sunday, after the Heat got back into the gym for a harder practice than they had in the offdays after they finished the Pacers, Spoelstra clarified a bit.

“They don’t necessarily have to score as many points, but they’re going to have to shoulder a big responsibility for us,’’ Spoelstra said of his stars. “Our team has changed. We’re still in the process of reinventing ourselves.

“This can be a defining moment - not only for our team, but for them.’’

James has lived with outlandish expectations from his early teens on. And those continue to dog him, especially since the Heat weren’t able to win the title that everyone expected of them last season, when they lost in the Finals to Dallas.

They have withstood more adversity in these playoffs - in which every team seems to have dealt with one injury or another - but they stand poised to make it to their second straight championship series. If they can get by the Celtics.

There was no looking at Boston as tired, as drained by long series against Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Heat wouldn’t even entertain those thoughts.

“Get out of here with that,’’ Wade said. “No feet hurting. No tired. No nothing. This is the Boston Celtics. They’re all 100 percent for me.’’

Said Spoelstra, “That’s ridiculous. We don’t buy into any of that. They didn’t look exhausted playing against two of the quicker, younger teams in this league.’’

But how will they play against the Heat, a team that boasts two of the best players in the NBA? It took five games for the Heat to knock the Celtics out in the second round last season. This season, the Heat seem focused on the matchup between the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo and Mario Chalmers, and on their stars.

Ultimately, though, Spoelstra said the series will be about staying true to what the teams do well, to what got them into the Eastern finals in the first place.

“It will still come to whichever team is able to play more consistently to their identity,’’ he said. “They’re a great jump-shooting team. We’re an attacking team. Who is going to be able to get to that more often?’’

And can James and Wade replicate the success they had against the Pacers? Can they be everything their team and teammates need?

“Obviously it’s not going to go like that for the rest of the series,’’ Wade said. “There are going to be some games where it’s going to be up and down. But we’re pretty good when we’re both playing like that.’’

They can hope, too, that Bosh will be back, that he can make a surprise appearance against the Celtics, though that seems to be a long shot at the moment.

“I’m not even preparing for that right now,’’ Spoelstra said. “I’m preparing for who we have in the gym. Our focus is tomorrow, and that’s all I can concentrate on is tomorrow. We have enough to win tomorrow. And that’s all any of our guys should be focused on.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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