The Miami Heat has quickly become the villains of the NBA, the team everyone wants to beat after an offseason free-agent shopping spree that saw Dwyane Wade re-sign and entice LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him in South Florida. While the level of hatred reached a peak last Thursday when the Heat visited the Cavaliers in James' old Cleveland stomping grounds, they are receiving rude welcomes from fans everywhere they go.
Coach Erik Spoelstra likes to think the pressure-packed road games will help the Heat in the long run, believing it should make his team mentally stronger.
"I've been mentioning that to our team for the last two or three weeks," Spoelstra said. "We've been experiencing a lot of extreme circumstances and experiences already in this young season, and as long as they don't break you and you continue to learn from those experiences and get better and get tougher, it'll help you in the long run. A lot of these games feel like a pressure, playoff-type game."
Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas believes the all the pressure from the outside has already toughened Miami.
"One good thing about this team is we police each other," he said. "We don't really have any young guys here, all veterans. Everybody knows what they came here for, good or bad. I think all the hatred that has been created from outside helped this team come together, because we really had nobody to turn to but ourselves."
If the Heat doesn't realize that, Spoelstra is there to constantly remind them. In fact, he is even beginning to enjoy the role of coaching the team in the proverbial black hats.
"We're getting to know each other under a lot of adverse circumstances, people coming down on us from all over the place," he said. "Every single person, just about, in that locker room has been the topic of some kind of criticism at some point, and that's bonded us. We're going through a lot of extreme circumstances early in the year, and these I think will really benefit us later in the year."
Mavericks On a Roll
The Dallas Mavericks have a nine-game winning streak, which has given them the second-best record in the NBA at 16-4, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs (17-3).
The Mavericks have also been streak busters this season. They snapped a 12-game winning streak by the Spurs, an eight-gamer by the Hornets, a seven-game run by Jazz and five-game streaks by the Celtics and Thunder.
Defense and depth has been the primary reason for Dallas' rise to the top of the standings in Dirk Nowitzki's eyes. Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood are all playing reserve roles after starting for most of their careers.
"We've got guys coming off the bench that could start on a lot of teams, and we don't even have our little 'Frenchie' (Rodrigue Beaubois) back yet, and he had a great rookie year last year and he's been hurt all season," Nowitzki said. "So once he gets back, we should be even deeper. I really like our two big guys. They really anchor our defense every night. Haywood and (Tyson) Chandler are active, they're blocking shots, they're rebounding, and offensively, I think, we're not forcing things. We move the ball, and we've got a lot of guys who can put the ball in the hole, and we're taking what the defense is giving us."
Lighter Approach for Collins
Doug Collins admits he has mellowed after time away from the bench as a television analyst. Thus, the Philadelphia 76ers coach is much less likely to rip into his players after disappointing losses as he would have been earlier in his career.
"I probably would have blown my brains out a few years ago," Collins said after the Sixers blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost to the Hawks last Friday. "I just know I can't do that. That would do no good for these guys."
The sensitive approach seems to be working. Philadelphia came back the next night and beat the Hornets. Collins knows that the Sixers lack a big-time scorer and also tend to slow the game down late in close games instead of continuing to run.
"These teams crank it up in the last five minutes," Collins said. "I'm not sure we're experienced enough yet to handle that."
The 76ers have not won a game decided by fewer than nine points this season. However, they have won three of their last four games to improve to 6-14.
Hollins Frustrated by Grizzlies
While Collins has decided to take the positive approach, that way of thinking has been more difficult for Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins lately.
The Grizzlies felt they were poised for a breakthrough this season but instead are 8-14 and Hollins has not been pleased with the consistency of his players' effort. In fact, Hollins blistered his team last Friday after a loss to the Rockets in which the Grizzlies allowed 16 three-point field goals.
"We lack cohesiveness, we lack unity, we lack oneness," Hollins said. "We have a lot of different agendas for whatever reasons there are. We have nobody stepping up and calling anybody out for lackluster effort or for not doing the job they're supposed to be doing. That is leadership.
"We play hard against the Lakers. We play hard against Miami. We play hard against Boston. And then we don't play as hard against Cleveland for 48 minutes. We don't play hard against Washington for 48 minutes. We don't play together in those particular games. It's a concern right now. It's on my mind. Our group has to decide whether we're going to become one and try to be successful. Or they can stay splintered and be a losing team."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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