<p>Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh (1), forward LeBron James (6) and shooting guard Dwyane Wade look on during the second half of a game Saturday against the Mavericks in Dallas. Dallas won 106-92.</p>
| November 30, 2010 8:00 PM
MIAMI - When it comes to the Miami Heat, it almost seems like there's no choice between loving 'em or hating 'em.
Most hate 'em.
Booing, sure, that's a given. Happens in every arena in the league, even sometimes their own. Hawkers of "Beat The Heat" T-shirts in Orlando were busy when Miami visited there last week. In Philadelphia, Dwyane Wade got jeered more loudly than ever, getting no love in the city where it's allegedly brotherly. And the only time LeBron James draws applause on the road is when something goes wrong.
Which, to the delight of many in the NBA, is happening far more often than anyone expected.
"I want them to lose all their games," Dallas owner Mark Cuban said.
Hey, they're coming closer to that than many ever imagined.
A team that expected magnificence is getting mediocrity instead - a 9-8 record entering Monday's game against Washington. The Heat began the day in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the New York Knicks. If the Heat had that record in the West, they'd be barely hanging on to the final playoff spot.
And this week, James goes back to Cleveland for the first time as a visiting player. For as harshly as the Heat have been received until now, Thursday's trip to a city scorned by its longtime hero might prove downright venomous.
"If you lose, no one's going to be happy, nor should they be," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Well, actually, plenty of people are happy about it - the rest of the NBA, for starters.
From the moment that James made his decision on July 8 to play for Miami, the Heat knew this was coming. They knew they would carry the biggest bulls-eye in the NBA, even though the Los Angeles Lakers are the defending champions and the Boston Celtics are the reigning kings of the Eastern Conference.
"As an opposing player, you're going to have those boos, no matter what," James said. "I had those boos when I was a Cleveland Cavalier and I'm having them again as a Heat."
Taking hits from across the league, that's one thing.
Taking hits from one another, that's the latest issue.
James bumped Spoelstra during a time-out in Dallas on Saturday night, a shoulder-to-shoulder bump that may have been unintentional, may have been out of frustration, may have been intended to send a message. James reached back instantly, almost as if making an apology, but no matter - by the time that quarter was over, the play was already on YouTube and the Twitterverse was buzzing that the two-time NBA MVP just hit his coach.
"A perfect case of overspeculation on this team," Spoelstra said.
Yes, but to that fire, the Heat added plenty of fuel.
Spoelstra said he will not change his coaching style - "I'm going to demand, push, prod. A lot of times players don't know what is needed for a team to break through," he said - and, at least publicly, none of the Heat players have demanded change.
But tensions are unquestionably high.
After that game, the Heat held a players-only meeting for 40 minutes. And on Monday, Spoelstra was hardly getting votes of confidence from players like Wade, who said no one - not coaches, not players - should feel good about the state of things in the Heat world. Bosh said in an on-court interview with ESPN after a recent game that players want to "chill" more than they want to practice. Then came James giving Spoelstra the shoulder, cold or otherwise.
And on Monday, Wade - who has had a close relationship with Spoelstra - said he wouldn't refer to him as "my guy" but rather "our coach."
"When you go through stretches where you're not playing up to your capability, there's always something wrong," Wade said. "There's always a problem. There's always a big problem. It's not anything we're concerned with. ... Sometimes players and coaches get into disagreements."
Wade said he didn't see the James-Spoelstra interaction during that time-out, which came during a horrific start to the second half by Miami.
"If there was a bump, it was just two guys walking at the same time, just happened to bump each other," Wade said.
There's been no shortage of bumps in the road, though, for the Heat this season.
And given the star power Miami has with James, Wade and Bosh - not to mention a Hall of Famer like Pat Riley overseeing the franchise - everything the Heat say and do gets analyzed like no other team in the league experiences.
"It's just crazy," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, looking incredulously around Orlando's press room. "You play the Heat and it's like double the crowd in here. My God, it's like they're the only team in the league."
For their part, the Heat don't necessarily enjoy that feeling either.
It's not that they don't get some support on the road. When Rudy Gay hit a gamewinner for Memphis, at home, to beat Miami on Nov. 20, he pointed toward a man in the stands - who just happened to be wearing a Heat jersey.
"I've never understood people to come into Memphis and wearing different people's jerseys and root for other teams," Gay said. "You can have favorite players, but I never understood that. The guy was heckling me. I was at home. Why are you heckling me?"
That's a rarity. When the Heat travel, most of the negativity is directed their way.
"Sometimes for us it's one of 82, but for other teams they circle it on their calendar," Bosh said. "We all wanted this coming in, so we're going to have to deal with it and just overcome it."
Dealing with it when visiting 28 different clubs will likely be much easier than dealing with what awaits in Cleveland on Thursday.
The Cavaliers and the NBA are taking extra security measures, the Heat are involved in some of those decisions, and James - who said he was leaving in a critically acclaimed hourlong special on television from Greenwich, Ct. - acknowledged last week that it might not be the best idea for his family and friends to attend the game.
"If James had made the announcement of his decision in Cleveland and explained his reasons for leaving, fans still wouldn't have liked it, but they would have accepted it better," said Dr. Jack Ramsay, the former Heat broadcaster who will call Thursday's game in Cleveland for ESPN Radio. "As it stands, emotions at this game will run high."
Hating the Heat could take on a whole new meaning.
"We'll deal with that when we get there," Spoelstra said. "Right now, we have enough to think about."