The NBA season opened Tuesday night with a spotlight on three teams expected to compete for the championship. In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat played the Boston Celtics, and in the Western Conference the back-to-back defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers played the Houston Rockets.
The Heat turned heads in the offseason by signing marquee free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and signed current Heat superstar Dwayne Wade to a new contract. Almost immediately, the Heat were considered by many experts as being the team to beat in the NBA, and quite possibly the best team in the history of professional basketball. Meanwhile, the defending Eastern Conference Champion Celtics beefed up their line-up as well, adding Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal.
In the Western Conference, the Lakers addressed what was considered by many to be its only weakness last season, its bench. By adding sharpshooter Steve Blake and defensive specialists Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, and resigning crowd favorite Shannon Brown, the Lakers became one of the deeper teams in the league.
With Miami traveling to Boston on opening night, all eyes were on the Heat and its newly constructed “Big 3”. However, it was the Celtic’s old “Big 3” that stole the show. Boston ran out to an early lead, and held Miami to a mere nine points in the 1st quarter. The Heat looked disorganized and confused, while the Celtics played like a well oiled machine. Boston went into the locker-room at halftime with a comfortable 45-30 lead. The Heat made a couple runs at the Celtics in the 2nd half, but in the end, the Celtics won by eight. To top it off, James, Wade and Bosh combined for 15 of the Heat’s 17 turnovers.
3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, the Lakers received their 2009/2010 NBA champions rings at center-court in Staples Center. After the festivities, the Lakers began its quest for a third straight championship, hosting the Rockets. The Lakers jumped out to an early lead, despite the absence of its injured promising young center, Andrew Bynum. Midway through the 1st quarter, the Rockets took the lead and extended it to an 11 point lead by halftime. Still trailing by 11 late in the 3rd quarter, the Lakers went on a 21-4 run, sparked by its bench. Shannon Brown electrified the crowd, but not with his trademark slam dunks that made him a crowd favorite at Staples Center. Brown brought the crowd to their feet with a barrage of 3-point shots that found nothing but the bottom of the net. Newcomer Steve Blake also hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the final minute of the 3rd quarter. The Lakers were trailing by one with 20 seconds remaining in the game and the ball in Kobe Bryant’s hands, he passed the ball to Blake, who without hesitation fired up the game-winning 3-point basket.
The Heat got all of the attention in the off-season. Countless photo sessions with its “Big 3” posing in a variety of different ways, with several different back-drops. For somebody who was paying attention to basketball for the first time in their life, it would be reasonable for him or her to assume the Heat was a three man basketball team. Hundreds upon hundreds of photos taken of James, Wade and Bosh together, and not one with the rest of the team. In a way, it was a slap in the face to every other player on the Heat’s roster, they were irrelevant. The average NBA fan probably couldn’t name the Heat’s starting point guard or center.
On the other hand, the Lakers are the epitome of a team. While it is undoubtedly Kobe’s team, Kobe doesn’t go around throwing it in his teammate’s faces and making it all about him. To the contrary, the Lakers are a tight-knit unit, routinely hanging out with one another off the court. Lamar Odom sacrifices personal glory and stats in the best interest of the team, the ultimate team player. Brown turned down more lucrative offers from other teams in the off-season and opted to stay with the Lakers for less money. There isn’t a player on the Lakers who doesn’t refer to Derek Fisher as the team leader. Pau Gasol is one of the most dominant big men in the game, but you never see him putting himself above the team. NBA bad boy Ron Artest went from being one of the most despised players in the league to the league jokester in one season in Lakers purple and gold. While somebody might be hard pressed to name four players on the Heat, most can go well into the Lakers bench before they run out of names.
The bottom line is this, superstar players do not win NBA championships, superstar teams do. On opening night, James, Wade, Bosh and a collection of players that nobody either knows or cares about, lost. That same night, the two-time defending champions played as a team and won. Their superstar player didn’t try to take the glory of the game winning shot, he passed the ball to a brand new teammate, and trusted him to make the shot. The Lakers are a group of players who play together, win together and lose together. They are battle tested and know what it takes to win it all. The Heat seem to be under the impression that all they need to do is show up and their opponent will shiver with fear, meekly bowing before them and getting out of the way. Take the San Francisco Giants in baseball for an example, several teams in the National League have much bigger names on their roster. Yet, those teams with big names on their roster are sitting at home and watching the Giants play in the World Series. Players don’t win championships, teams do.
So let’s stop all of this nonsense about the Heat being the best team in the history of the NBA. Stop predicting the Bulls record 72 wins in a season will fall. The championship will not be handed to the Heat, and neither will the Bulls record. The Celtics are the defending Eastern Conference champions and the Lakers are the defending NBA champions, two teams that have earned their titles through their play on the court, not by standing in front of a camera and making intimidating faces. It is a long season, with several battles that must be won along the way. The Lakers have proven they have what it takes to win it all, and the Heat have proven nothing. The road to the championship runs through Los Angeles, not through Miami.