MIAMI -- The ring ceremony was missing something on Tuesday, something besides Mike Miller, who was shipped off last summer in a cost-cutting move, because even billionaire owners have a budget. Inside American Airlines Arena, where the court served as a 3D screen showing action clips of a championship season, an expected element was curiously lacking. Emotion? Yes, that's the word.
None of the Heat players behaved like kids at recess when they received their new toys. There were smiles but no laughter, hand-slaps instead of hugs, a slow walk to midcourt but no "Harlem Shuffle". The Heat acted as if they'd been there before, and come to think of it, they had. Commissioner David Stern, who handed out the rings, likely felt the only strong, emotional tug; this was his final ceremony before he signs off on Feb. 1.
And yet, there are enough reasons to wonder if the ceremony will be the last for the Heat, too, at least for a while. Yes, they have LeBron James, and any team with a four-time MVP will always be in the mix and given the benefit of the doubt. But Miami didn't exactly steamroll the competition the last two years, needing a miracle three-pointer by Ray Allen to steal the latest title. A handful of teams in the East, weary of being used as a towel for the Heat to polish their rings, manned up over the summer. Serious threats are now bubbling in Brooklyn, Indiana and especially Chicago, where the Bulls and Derrick Rose were placed on the menu for the Heat's season opener, by a league hoping to start the new season with a bang.
Any attempted overthrow of the champs must happen in the next 81 games, however, because the Bulls hardly looked like a serious challenger. It was Heat 107, Bulls 95, and pretty much over by the second quarter, when foul trouble and Miami's defense doomed the Bulls, despite a mortal performance from LeBron.
The only suspense was restricted to Rose and his first official game in 17 months. His debut was dicey: 4-for-15 shooting, 12 points, five turnovers and absolutely zero impact. The good news for the Bulls: Rose's repaired knee never buckled. The embarrassing news: His ankles did, when Norris Coles crossed him up in the first half. Rose had maybe three spurts where he looked like his old self, the player who kept LeBron from winning the MVP in four straight seasons. He challenged Chris Bosh at the rim and won. The cutting, the slash -- it was all there, but that was it. He lost his man on defense a few times. He was stripped in the open court by Mario Chalmers in the opening minute, and he missed a handful of open looks.
"You have to be realistic," he said. "I'm going to have a breakthrough game. It just wasn't tonight. I didn't force anything, I just didn't make the shots. It'll come. It's the first game. Easy to fix."
Encouraged by the return of Rose, the Bulls talked themselves up in the preseason as chief rival to the Heat. Not even an opening-night wipeout made them think twice about that. "I know we can play better," said Joakim Noah. "I know I can play better. I'm not worried about it. We have a lot of work to do, but there's a long season ahead of us. Plenty of time."
LeBron's night was punctuated by a sweet bounce pass to Chris Andersen; Dwyane Wade had a couple of reverse lay-ins and Chris Bosh held Noah to a bucket. Otherwise, they left the heavy lifting Tuesday to the bench, which scored 42 points, with Shane Battier hitting four three-pointers (coming off his six three-pointers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals). It's the sort of production Miami could use from the second string, given the circumstances. In a rather smug course of action, the Heat didn't make any significant additions over the summer, other than gambling on Greg Oden's knees and Michael Beasley's head. The general feeling seemed to be, "Hey, the rest of the league must catch up to us." To emphasize that point, the two-time champs opened the season with Udonis Haslem starting at power forward. That takes guts.
"A good way to start for us," said Bosh, "getting the total team effort."
So the Heat once again will rely on the Big Three plus fringe players. This was enough to secure three conference titles and two NBA titles, but not without some nervous moments. Had Spurs coach Gregg Popovich kept Tim Duncan on the floor, maybe Bosh doesn't grab that rebound off a LeBron miss, then finding Allen for the biggest three-pointer in NBA history. It's just a reminder that Miami not only could've easily lost last season's title, but also needed a superhuman effort from LeBron to fight off two elimination games against the Celtics in 2012.
With the Nets, Pacers and Bulls in mad pursuit, the Heat's margin for error against the posse will be thin, should Wade's body betray him at some point, and the burden falls once again on LeBron.
"We have to come back a better team," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "The teams we played last season improved in the off-season. The Bulls got an injection of talent with Rose coming back. That's the challenge for us, to find ways within ourselves to become better players."
The whale in the room won't disappear until July, but that drama will wait. Something more urgent has the Heat's attention: a third straight title and a chance to match the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, the last team to do that. They dropped some delicious hints Tuesday, none more than Allen's first three-pointer of the new season. It came on the south goal, corner pocket right, exactly where he broke the Spurs' hearts in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6.
Allen received a long, standing ovation when he reached Stern and accepted his ring. It was the highlight of a pre-game ceremony that otherwise felt routine for the two-time champs.
"We feel refreshed and ready for the long road ahead," said Wade. "Tonight was a step in the right direction."
Well, then. With a motivated Rose joining the Bulls, and two old friends from the Celtics joining the Nets, and a smarter and wiser team in Indiana, the Heat definitely will have to earn their next ring ceremony. If there is one.