<
>

After winning Game 1 in a rout, Heat can feel a bit more confident now

MIAMI – The 82-game regular-season schedule wasn’t enough time to give Dwyane Wade the confidence he needed to feel certain this Miami Heat group was ready for postseason play.

“The playoffs are just different,” Wade said entering the playoffs. “We have a lot of guys who haven’t been through this before in a Miami Heat uniform. We’ve grown as a team over the course of the season. But the playoffs will show us a lot about ourselves and how far we’ve come.”

If Sunday’s performance in a record-setting 123-91 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series was any indication, the Heat proved they still can be the balanced and defensively sound team they were over the second half of the season. The 123 points set a franchise playoff record for points in a game, and the Heat shot 57.6 percent from the field.

Most important, the Heat didn’t collapse amid prosperity.

At least not like last week, when they squandered a 26-point lead in a 10-point loss to Boston to close out the regular season. Miami also avoided the kind of meltdown it experienced the last time the Hornets were at AmericanAirlines Arena, on March 17, when Charlotte erased a 15-point deficit to hand the Heat their only home loss during the month.

Wade, the lone remaining rotation player from the Heat’s previous playoff team, didn’t need to do much heavy lifting on a night Miami’s supporting cast set the tone and dominated from start to finish. Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside combined for 52 points on 20-of-24 shooting and added 18 rebounds to lead the Heat to their first playoff victory since the 2014 NBA Finals.

“We just knew it was time to play Miami Heat basketball,” said Whiteside, who acknowledged his teammates were irked far more than they let on publicly by the letdown in Boston. “We’re in the playoffs. It’s all or nothing. Just leave it all out there. We came out and played our hearts out as a team. We’re just going to try to keep it rolling.”

That amounts to some semblance of a growth spurt.

The Heat have undergone a massive roster makeover since LeBron James anchored a team that made four consecutive trips to the Finals and back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. Miami went 37-45 and missed the playoffs last season after James returned to Cleveland as a free agent, but regrouped this season to finish with 48 victories and the 3-seed in the East.

Just getting to that point required a level of resilience the Heat hope to carry through this playoff run. Miami remains without Chris Bosh, the perennial All-Star forward who has been sidelined with a medical condition since February and is not expected to return this postseason. Late last week, Heat assistant coach Keith Smart returned to work after missing most of the regular season to battle skin cancer.

Beyond that, there were trades, injuries, lineup changes and other tweaks that prevented Miami from hitting anything resembling a stride until the last two months, when they went 19-10 after the All-Star break. Understandably, Wade had questions -- even doubts -- along the way.

Those questions could be answered only at the most important time of the season.

The Heat responded to their first test in dominant fashion from the outset. They tied a franchise record for points in a quarter when they scored 41 in the first against the Hornets, building a 19-point lead. It was a continuation of Miami’s recent dominance at home, where it had won 10 of its last 11 entering the playoffs. The lone setback was the 109-106 loss to the Hornets.

But the Heat wouldn’t allow the Hornets back into the game this time, and controlled the tempo by doubling up Charlotte in both points in the paint and rebounds through the first three quarters. Their 97 points entering the fourth also was a franchise postseason record. Miami improved to 16-2 in first-round playoff games in its last four trips to the postseason.

“Two points,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of his takeaways from Sunday. “One is, whether you lose by 30 or one, it’s one-nothing. We lost one game. And up front, we just got manhandled. If Deng and Whiteside are going to combine for those kinds of numbers, it’s going to be hard for us to win.”

It’s also getting tougher for Wade not to see improvement in his team.

The balance from Sunday’s box score was indicative of how Miami has shared the workload. Deng’s 31 points led five Heat players in double figures. Over the course of the season, 10 different players have topped the Heat in scoring in a game.

“We know how good we can be; there are games we’ve shown that,” Deng said. “The game in Boston, we got up in the first half and looked great. We’ve got a lot of guys who can score, but right now we’re so unselfish. And we just know that every night is about winning the game. It’s going to be a different guy every night and we accept that.”

What the Heat also embrace is the notion there could be absolutely no carryover from Sunday into Game 2 on Wednesday. Adversity is certain to come at some stage in this series. Wade is certain of that.

But this Heat team is growing in stages – even on the biggest stage of the season.

“As I talked about all year with this team, it’s really trying to understand our identity,” Wade said. “First we had to find it. Then once we found it, we had to understand what it was that made us successful. And then it was about getting to that game consistently. And this is the time of year where everything you work for over 82 games, you put it all together.”

It came together quickly in Game 1. If the Heat have learned anything this season, it’s that things can unravel just as fast. No lead is safe, especially not 1-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series.

“This was obviously a great win, but there’s going to be a moment when we’re faced with challenges in this series somewhere,” Wade continued. “And that’s where I want to see the growth in this team. We can play basketball. But when things start going south -- when it’s not going your way, when you’re not making shots -- how do we respond? Once I see we respond the right way, that’s when I know we’ve taken a step to that next level where we need to go.”