Thursday January 13th, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- UCLA students lined the hallway outside a rec center gymnasium on Tuesday afternoon, some resting their heads on their backpacks, as if they were camping out for tickets to the USC game. But this was not a game, just a NBA practice, and not even an open practice at that. The students were waiting only for the players inside the gym to leave the court and walk to the bus, so precious is a glimpse of them.

This is what the Miami Heat envisioned last summer when they implemented their outrageous plot: a midseason workout, in a far-flung city, attracting star-struck masses. The Heat did not anticipate the rancor that greeted them this season, or the ragged start, but everything else has basically proceeded as planned. They have all the attention they wanted and now all the success.

The Heat arrived in Los Angeles having won 21 of 22 games, 13 straight on the road, three shy of the record set by the 1971-72 Lakers. They speak as if history is waiting on them. "We've been great, but haven't shown greatness," said head coach Erik Spoelstra. "We have another level we can go to. We have to reach higher. We have to do more. ... We do want to be remembered."

They have recaptured their self-assured tone of summer, before they started 9-8, lost twice to Boston and once at home to Indiana. "I'm sure in everybody's mind there was human doubt," said Dwyane Wade. "What is wrong?" No one was confronted by that question more than Wade, who helped create the monster in Miami, and then was nearly devoured by it.

In those preliminary public trials, Wade went 5 of 16 against Boston, 2 of 12 in the rematch, 1 of 13 against Indiana and 6 of 21 two days later in Orlando. LeBron James and Chris Bosh were also searching, but Wade became the face of the early embarrassments, at his worst when the team was at theirs.

James and Bosh were the ones switching teams, but Wade faced arguably the toughest acclimation. For the first time in his career, outside of the Olympics, he had to play off the ball for an extended period and hope somebody would find him.

"I used to have the ball so much more, be a playmaker, be the guy who scored and took shots to get myself in a rhythm," Wade said. "I had to figure out my role on the team and that took a little while."

Wade assumed that he and James could use the preseason to develop a rapport, but then he strained his right hamstring in the opener. When he returned, James was dominating the ball, and Wade found himself marooned on the perimeter, left to throw up 3s or force drives. "I had to adjust," Wade said. "But I always feel I'm the kind of player who can make any adjustment asked of me."

Wade's U-turn has mirrored the Heat's. On their current surge, he has scored more than 30 points in a game eight times, and at least 40 twice. He was named co-player of the month with James in December and player of the week twice in a three-week span. Wade is no longer deferring but complementing, making cuts and curling around screens, letting the system reward him. He has rediscovered his mid-range game and watched his 3-point percentage rise as well. The issue that sparked so much talk-show debate -- Whose team really is this? -- could not sound more insignificant.

The Heat could always use size and point-guard help, but they are no longer bemoaning their lack of reinforcements. "I feel like we have enough," James said. In fact, Spoelstra is struggling to find minutes for shooting guard Mike Miller, fully recovered from thumb surgery. Spoelstra said he will look for more opportunities to use Miller, who could help the Heat reach the other level they so often reference.

James recently predicted that neither he nor Wade has any chance to win MVP, implying they will split votes. He is probably correct, but as the NBA nears the midseason mark, Wade has to be a credible candidate. Through his scoring is slightly down, he is averaging more rebounds, fewer turnovers and a higher field-goal percentage than last season. By trimming his salary, he allowed the Heat to put together this roster, and by revamping his style, he allowed this roster to hum.

There is, however, one role that Wade does not seem to have fully embraced. While the Heat has learned to wear the black hat -- James, especially -- Wade is still somewhat miscast as a villain. He draws the requisite boos on the road, but they can sound half-hearted, and for good reason. He never left the city that drafted him. He just made it possible for others to join him and still play their game.

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