1. Ring Trilogy? Heat's Opening Page Strong
MIAMI -- About 30 minutes before the start of Tuesday's game, Miami city police officers surrounded a table at midcourt that contained the Heat's championship rings.
It wouldn't be long before LeBron James and his teammates formed a similar barricade around Derrick Rose to restrict access to the rim in his first NBA regular-season game following 18 months of recovery from major knee surgery.
The Heat were not emotionally overwhelmed by their rings nor the return of Rose on the way to building a 25-point lead en route to a 107-95 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena. This was more than a welcome-back moment on a marquee stage for Rose. It also served as a reality check.
Miami handled its dual challenges masterfully for much of the night. First, the Heat maintained a respectfully subdued demeanor throughout much of the pregame ring ceremony and banner raising to commemorate last season's title run.
Then they dismantled Rose, held him to just 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting and forced the Bulls' star guard into five turnovers, including one on the very first play of the game.
To ensure they approached the night with the proper sense of balance, the Heat took care of the ring ceremony first and then retreated back to the locker room for 10 minutes to reset their focus on the game. James addressed the team as the players were gathered and reminded them what the night was truly about: the start of a new, and likely more difficult, trek than any of the three previous seasons.
"It wasn't hard at all," James said of the process of finally putting last season to rest and placing this season into exclusive focus. "Once the banner went up and we left the floor, we left last year when we left the floor. And we started on our journey to this season."
Those diamonds in those rings Heat players locked away or handed to family members for safekeeping are a reflection of the contenders they'll face: bigger than ever before.
Bolder than they've ever been.
And with much more quality depth.
But those characteristics also describe the Heat as they enter this season aiming to become just the fourth franchise in league history to win three consecutive championships.
And it wasn't even as if these were any sort of statement performances from James and Dwyane Wade, who entered the fourth quarter a combined 5-of-19 from the field and never established any consistent offensive rhythm. This wasn't a night for Miami's standouts. It was game that displayed the quality and depth of the Heat's fill-ins.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used nine players against the Bulls, and seven of them scored in double figures. Ray Allen set his Heat career high with seven assists, and Shane Battier delivered another perfect effort from 3-point range, knocking down all four he attempted from beyond the arc. Backup point guard Norris Cole ran the team in its most productive stretches, including a 17-0 run in the first half. And Chris Andersen grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.
The Heat's bench turned what was supposed to be a welcome-back moment for Rose into a reminder of just why the league commissioner and all the pregame festivities were scheduled for Miami in the first place.
"As you get older, you start to cherish these more because you start to see how much harder it is for you to put it together to make it happen," Allen said of appreciating last season but looking forward to this season. "We think about those fighting moments, not just in the playoffs, just throughout the year. When we look at the ring as competitors, we realize what it stands for."
On Tuesday, it didn't stand as a distraction.
Wade said his teammates quickly got past the nostalgia of the initial stages of the night. More so than any other member of the Heat, Wade best knows the danger of the alternative. He was with Miami in 2006-07 season opener, when the Heat had their ring ceremony to celebrate their 2006 title. It was spoiled by a 42-point loss to Chicago.
"We understood the competition they were going to bring," Wade said. "At the end of the day, we came in and did what we wanted to do. We wanted to come in and establish ourselves on the defensive end and come out with a win."
After singling out the Heat as their only true rival in the league and declaring during an 8-0 preseason they have the pieces in place to knock off the two-time defending champ, the Bulls might now have to again reassess this matchup.
With Rose back, Chicago obviously is a better team than it was without him. The Heat can also look across the Eastern Conference landscape and see improved products in Indiana, Brooklyn, Detroit and Washington as well. New York always will consider itself a fierce Miami rival.
But the Heat didn't just stand pat after making three straight trips to the NBA Finals. They got better and deeper as well.
Rose anticipates this will be the first of many battles with the Heat this season. That's why the initial disappointment and dejection from Tuesday's loss won't linger for long.
"We didn't show all we're capable of," Rose said. "It's something we can learn from. It's not the end of the world. It's not the playoffs, where we're eliminated or something. It's the first game. We can easily fix things."
The Heat will need to fix a few things, too. They committed 20 total turnovers, which handed the Bulls 30 points. Wade, James and Bosh were rather pedestrian. Miami was erratic and sloppy down the stretch.
And the Heat still were clearly the dominant team.
The Heat on Tuesday finally put last season to rest. But nothing's changed entering this season regarding their status or their quest.
2. Around The Association
MVP: Xavier Henry. Henry scored a career-high 22 points off the bench in his first game as a Laker, slashing and shooting for four quarters. Eleven of his 13 field goal attempts were either 3s or in the paint.
X factor: The Lakers' bench. The L.A. team in gold played its bench the entire fourth quarter and outscored the Clippers 41-24 in the final period. The bench combined for 76 points on the night and saw five players score in double figures.
That was ... unexpected: Remember when we were wondering by just how much the Clippers would win this game? How silly does that seem now? The Lakers outhustled and simply outplayed their hallway rivals all night, especially in the second half.
MVP: Statistically, the answer here is Carlos Boozer, who finished with 31 points on 18 shots. But we'll give the nod to Norris Cole, who commandeered a focused second unit with near-flawless decision-making on both ends. He finished with 11 points (missing only two shots), 7 rebounds, 3 assists and a game-best plus/minus of plus-17 in 21 minutes of action.
That was ... terrifying: Miami choked the life out of Chicago's offense in the first half, holding the Bulls to 12-for-40 shooting and trapping Derrick Rose on every single one of his attempts in the pick-and-roll. The defending champs were in playoff form from the opening tip.
X factor: Miami's bench. Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Norris Cole combined to make eight of Miami's 11 3-pointers; each of them scoring in double figures on a night where the Big 3 didn't consistently put the ball in the basket.
Most Valuable Player: Roy Hibbert (8 points, 16 rebounds, 7 blocks) gets the nod for doing yeoman's work defensively. Time and again, the Magic tried to challenge Hibbert at the rim and he stood his ground.
Defining Moment: A Ronnie Price jumper cut the Pacers' lead to 65-64 with 6.1 seconds left in the third quarter. Indiana responded by going on a 21-4 run to put the game out of reach.
That was ... confusing: In the first half, Andrew Nicholson scored 18 points (8-for-9 shooting) in 12 minutes. Then he didn't check back into the game until the start of the fourth quarter. Let the tanking begin?
3. Tuesday's Best
Xavier Henry, Lakers:
Sorry, other worthies of opening night. Whenever Xavier Henry gets a career-high 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, he is Today's Best. His three 3-pointers were one short of his entire 2012-13 output with New Orleans.
4. Tuesday's Worst
The Clippers' opening salvo: It appears the Lakers aren't ready to crown their hallway pals the West champs quite yet. The Clippers looked positively lethargic in the face of the Lakers' bench energy.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"This is going to be one of the roughest seasons that the Lakers have ever faced. You're waiting on Kobe [Bryant] to see if he can get healthy. Nobody knows if he can be what he was."
-- Magic Johnson, shortly before the Lakers went out and won their opener.
8. The Upbeat Mamba
9. Stat Check
Lakers bench players contributed 76 of the teams 116 points in their win over the Clippers. It's the most points in a game from non-starters for the Lakers since April 24, 1988, when the bench combined for 84 points in a 136-100 win over the Warriors. Tony Campbell led the Lakers' bench brigade with 28 points in that game.
10. TrueHoop TV