AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Miami Heat were convincing.
Entering Friday night's game against the Detroit Pistons, a few Oscars could have been handed out to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra for the respective roles they played in trying to convince themselves -- and everyone within earshot -- that their total focus was on the Pistons and not what lay waiting Sunday at TD Garden in Boston.
But then came an out-of-character moment for James. If the Heat weren't thinking about Sunday's showdown against the Boston Celtics going into Friday's game, they were by the end of the first quarter. That's when a fan at The Palace of Auburn Hills shouted an offensive remark from the first row of the stands at James regarding his mother, Gloria, making the trip to Boston for Valentine's Day.
“What did you say to me?” James shot back as he approached the scorer's table and glanced at the fan who was seated a few feet away from the Heat's bench. “I don't care what you say to me. I don't give a [expletive] what you say. But don't be disrespectful.”AP Photo/Duane Burleson
LeBron James confronted a heckler on Friday, but has a more imposing foe on Sunday in Boston.
That exchange, which occurred during a break in play with 1.7 seconds left in the first quarter, provided the only suspense on a night when the Heat moved ahead of Boston and into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference standings with a 106-92 victory against the Pistons.
After the game, James said he considered not saying anything to the fan. But with his two young sons sitting courtside next to the Heat's bench, and a few feet away from the heckler, James said he decided to speak up because “you have to draw the line somewhere.”
James and the Heat are all about drawing lines these days. Their next opportunity to do just that comes Sunday in what shapes up as the most important regular-season game on their schedule. Heat players talked after Friday's game about having all of the respect in the world for the Celtics, the defending conference champions who could be the most formidable threat to the Heat's title hopes this season.
But don't let the pleasantries fool you. Not only do the Heat need this game. They want this game. Already 0-2 against the Celtics this season, the Heat need to know they can beat these guys. James, Wade, Chris Bosh -- who anchor the most hyped team in the league -- need the validation that they can stand up to the only team that has legitimately bullied them this season.
And that's what makes Round 3 of the Heat-Celtics series far more important to Miami than Boston. It doesn't matter that it's a home game for the Celtics or that they've hit a bit of a slide while sustaining a few injuries, having lost three of their past four games. This one is huge for the Heat, who need to avoid falling to 0-3 against the Celtics and remain alive should the No. 1 seed in the East come down to a tiebreaker scenario.
“We understand what the moment is right now,” Spoelstra said. “And we don't want to miss this moment. We have to make the most of it. Now we are a half-game up in the East. And so now the target is on our back now. Let's see how we play with that now.”
Spoelstra doesn't want to make this moment about one opponent. Instead, he's tried to keep a bigger-picture perspective, stressing that the Heat, winners of eight consecutive games, are more focused on going into the All-Star break with momentum. After Sunday, the Heat finish their four-game trip with contests against the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors before All-Star festivities in Los Angeles.
“It's not make or break for us,” Spoelstra said of Sunday's game against Boston. “We think we're the most improved team since the end of November. And each game we play is an opportunity to get better. We respect what the Boston Celtics are and what they've proven the last three and a half years. This is what everybody -- the fans, the media -- wants.”
It also has to be a game the Heat want. Really want. There are no more excuses available now. When the Celtics pounded the Heat in the Oct. 26 season opener, opening a 19-point lead before holding off a late Heat rally, the 88-80 loss in Boston was dismissed as an unfair fight because James, Wade and Bosh were playing together for the first time -- and Wade had missed all of training camp.
When the Celtics came down to Miami two weeks later and built another comfortable lead and held on for a 112-107 victory, the Heat said they still needed more time and hadn't figured out their roles yet. They were in the midst of a turbulent 9-8 start, as tempers flared while the team was in turmoil.
Now, Spoelstra refers to his crew as team Teflon because of Miami's ability to weather the early storm of criticism and controversy. It's a moniker they wear almost like a badge these days. The Heat have climbed back into first place in the conference, but they know the Celtics are the standard-bearers.
“Every team in the Eastern Conference, every team in the league -- even the Lakers -- Boston is always the game where everybody tries to measure themselves to see where they're at,” Wade said. “Boston is the team in the Eastern Conference that we all look to and say, 'We've got to get there as a team.'”
Spoelstra, Wade, James and Bosh all insist the Heat are a different team than the one Boston dominated. Now, they have a chance to show it.
Spoelstra must demonstrate that he can match wits with Doc Rivers, the Boston coach whose name popped up in those rumors earlier in the season as a potential Pat Riley target should the Heat fall short of expectations.
Wade must show that he can stay committed to fighting through those screens set for Ray Allen, or embrace the defensive assignment on Rajon Rondo instead of taking a possession or two off to complain to referees about fouls that aren't called when driving into the lane.
James must show that he can put those Celtics demons to rest against a stingy defense that frustrates him into near submission more than any other team in the league.
Bosh simply can't get punked and dunked on again by Rondo without even trying to contest the play. That can't happen if the Heat are a different team this time around. It simply can't.
“Right now our guys are hungry,” James said. “It just shows where we've come since November, when we were 9-8. It shows the commitment we've had. We know it's a big game for us. Boston beat us twice and they're a team we're trying to catch. You have to go through them to do what you want to do.”
That line from James says it all. The Heat are slightly ahead of the Celtics, but there's a lingering feeling that they're a step behind. It doesn't matter what the standings reveal.
Sunday is a statement game for Miami. The last time the Heat faced one this big, they provided a resounding answer on Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers.
It's time to speak up again and draw that line.
Just like James did when he boldly and unapologetically confronted that heckler Friday night.
Now, it's time to do the same thing against a Boston squad that's hounded the Heat all season.