The tone among NBA analysts has certainly changed from last spring, when Magic Johnson was saying that the Heat did not know how to win, Skip Bayless was spewing his usual LeBron James venom, Bill Simmons was assuring us Miami wouldn’t win the championship, and Jon Barry was announcing he was “done” with the Heat.
This time around, with Miami having won a championship and 37 of its final 39 heading into the playoffs, pundits are far more respectful, far less likely to predict the Heat’s demise.
“I would be surprised if they don’t win the title again,” TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal said by phone last week. “There is no stress, no drama, no negative stuff. They play great team ball. This was the epitome of the Pat Riley culture this season. And Erik Spoelstra has done a great job.”
So who’s the biggest threat to Miami?
“Themselves,” Shaq said. “They look damn near perfect to me. Everyone says they don’t have a big man. They don’t need it.”
### ESPN’s Flip Saunders, the former Timberwolves and Wizards coach, said of the Heat: “I don't see anyone challenging them. I give a lot to credit to Spoelstra, my Coach of the Year.
“You take a team that won a championship being defensive oriented, and he came back this year and changed his offensive philosophy and they became the most efficient offensive team because of that. And then their defense caught up with how they were playing.
“There are teams that are going to be able to beat them a game or two maybe, but I can't see anyone that has the ability to beat them four games in a row.”
First, Bucks guard Brandon Jennings said in March that he hoped Milwaukee would play the Heat in the first round because he believes the Bucks match up well.
Now that a Heat-Bucks series has become a reality, Jennings not only isn’t distancing himself from that rhetoric, but instead is adding fuel.
“I’m sure everybody is writing us off, but I see us winning the series in six,” Jennings said this week. “There’s no pressure on us.”
The comment caught the Heat’s attention, even though coach Eric Spoelstra said he wouldn’t mention it to his players because “that wouldn’t deserve me bringing it up. This thing will be decided between those four lines, and you can’t hide from it.”
Here’s how Heat players reacted to Jennings’ prediction:
### Chris Bosh: “If he thinks they’re going to win, great. They already had our attention. Now they have more of our attention.”
### Shane Battier: “There’s no need for talk. Just play. Let your game speak for itself…. We don’t give that sort of talk much time. We have more important things to worry about.”
### Dwyane Wade: “We don’t need any motivation from what a guy says. A guy is supposed to have confidence in his team.”
### Asked if he appreciates the Bucks’ confidence, LeBron James said: “I can only appreciate what we do here. Whatever their confidence or motivation, that’s for them to figure out, worry about.”
Wade said there’s no risk of overlooking an opponent that finished six games under .500. “We know they’re a good team, especially if you let them get to their game…. We respect teams more than they respect us, probably.”
Spoelstra said overlooking an opponent isn’t an issue with this team.
“Milwaukee will get the respect they deserve,” Spoelstra said. “This team can be very challenging, with that speed and quickness, great shot-blocking.”
He said he told his team to “stay in the moment” because “everybody wants to fast track right now. For some ill-informed people, this series doesn’t draw enough interest in their eyes.” To wit: Game 2 is relegated to NBA TV.
But Spoelstra said: “This is a team that has challenged us, and we struggled against them in our first two games.”
The Heat beats the Bucks in overtime in their first meeting, lost by 19 at Milwaukee in December, and beat them by 13 and 11 in their final two matchups.
HEAT LINEUP ISSUES
Spoelstra has remained non-committal about whether he will stick with Udonis Haslem as a starter or instead opt for Battier, who started in last year’s Finals and through the first month of this season.
Haslem has started since mid-December, including throughout Miami’s 27-game winning streak, but said Spoelstra hasn’t told him if he will remain in that role.
“I’m as anxious as you guys are to see what happens,” Battier said, saying the decision could hinge partly on matchups.
### James said sitting out three games in the past week “allowed me to miss the game again, and that’s what I need. You need something just to kind of make you miss it, love it again.”
### Wade, who missed some time late in the season with soreness in his right knee, did not participate in the contact portion of practice but said he hopes to practice fully on Saturday. Spoelstra said the rest of his team is healthy.
### The Heat said a limited number of tickets remain for Games 1 and 2.
### UM was disappointed about linebacker Gabe Terry’s arrest for felony marijuana possession because it was counting him for next season. Defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said Terry was useful in a third down package last season and likes his upside as a pass rusher.
Terry has been removed from UM’s on-line roster and was suspended, with his longterm future here in serious question.
### Miami Northwestern defensive end/linebacker Mike Smith, a skilled pass rusher, has received a UM offer and told Canesport.com on Friday that there’s a 90 percent chance he will accept. “Miami’s at the top, no doubt,” he said.
Rivals.com ranks Smith 24th among all weakside defensive ends. He had 73 tackles and 18 sacks last season.
### Please follow me on Twitter: @flasportsbuzz
And please see our last post on what Pat Riley said in his state of the franchise news conference today.