"We've had a lot of talks, we've had heart-to-hearts, especially after this five-game losing streak," says Bosh. "Things were tough. If someone's not playing hard, you've got to talk about it. You may not want to hear about it, it may hurt at the time, but the media situation and the microscope has desensitized us [to the point that a teammate's reaction] really doesn't matter. I'll say things when guys don't want to hear it most, and they'll get mad for a second and then it's, Right, my bad, let's do that."
That higher tolerance for criticism was tested last week when Bosh demanded to be a larger inside presence for the good of the team. Wade encouraged him to be aggressive—but he also bluntly added, "It's Chris not having been in a lot of these situations and moments in his career. A lot of after-All-Star breaks for Chris has been planning his vacation early." Bosh has been painfully honest with himself as well. "I'm not even a good defensive player right now," he says, though his work at that end has improved in Miami.
Spoelstra and his players have been through so many miniscandals that they've learned to not fear the next attack, even as outsiders have trouble understanding how they continue to push through. "One of the reasons why the Bulls were very successful—and the Lakers also—is their engendered good feelings: People were rooting for them, they wanted to see them be successful," says Lakers coach Phil Jackson of his title teams in Chicago and L.A. "From what I've heard, this team feels like they're being looked at to lose... . That's a burden to carry."
But Heat president Pat Riley has spent three successful decades developing an us-against-the-world mentality, and his protégé, Spoelstra, has instilled it in the players. "I mentioned to the team the other day, 'We're getting to know each other right now,'" says Spoelstra of the recent losing streak. "You get to know somebody really when there's adversity, when you don't necessarily like each other and you don't like where things are going. When you truly get to know somebody is when you truly make strides collectively."
Riley felt obliged last week to shoot down speculation about Spoelstra's future, telling the Newark Star-Ledger it was nothing more than "the media being neurotic." Talk of a coaching change indeed makes no sense, not only because the Heat has kept fighting for Spoelstra but also because there is no ready replacement. Riley has made it clear he doesn't want to return to the bench, and potential hires down the line include only one NBA coach who has won a championship and isn't of retirement age: Doc Rivers, who has insisted to friends that he would sit out at least one season should he ever leave the Celtics. Miami isn't so much a franchise as it is a program of unique principles and systems set forth by Riley. He has invested 16 years in developing Spoelstra, who has worked his way up from video coordinator within the program. Fire Spoelstra to bring in an outsider, and all of that goes out the window. The three stars came to play in the Riley program, and he isn't going to betray them less than a year into their mission.
"When things get rough, I know I have been in situations that are much worse," says Bosh, who doesn't regret leaving Toronto, where he made just two playoff appearances—both first-round losses—in seven years. "It's worse not having a chance."
Can the Heat convert its star power into a championship over the next three months? The formula used to beat the Lakers seems promising: Bosh established himself around the basket early, James filled the role of playmaker and Wade served as the ruthless finisher, scoring eight points in the final five minutes. But two NBA advance scouts say that there is too much tit for tat between James and Wade. "It's not that they don't like each other, it's that they take turns—it's LeBron's turn, and then when he goes to sit on the bench it's D-Wade's turn to go on a spurt," says one of the scouts. "They both need the ball in their hands, and then while they've been figuring that out, Bosh has had to find his spot in the offense."
The Heat may not fulfill its potential until next season or beyond, after Riley has found a center who fits in, and James and Wade have not only established a flow but also improved their three-point shooting in order to spot up when the other penetrates. But Miami doesn't have to approach perfection in order to win now. The Celtics have taken on the risk of relying on four future Hall of Famers who have each played more than 35,000 career minutes: If that gamble backfires and Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Paul Pierce happens to break down, then which contender in the East is going to stop the Heat? Will it be the Bulls, whose MVP front-runner, point guard Derrick Rose, has never won a postseason series? Can it be the Magic, whose overhauled roster has spent less time together than Miami's?
No matter whom the Heat face, Bosh's importance will escalate in the postseason, as the pace slows and the need for interior scoring grows. "I would say this is the most ambitious group of people I've ever met in my life," says Bosh of the organization. "People have to remember that this is our first year together. We said what our ambitions are—we want to win championships—and everybody wants to throw rocks because we came together. But there's going to be frustrations because we're growing, there's going to be pain."
That pain has been amplified by all of the scrutiny and the delight that so many seem to take in the Heat's struggles. If suddenly it should all click this postseason for James, Wade and Bosh—and it very well could—they may celebrate the criticism as a source of inspiration. If nothing else, it has given them a sense of urgency. "It's got to be this year," says Bosh. "We don't want to put in all of this hard work just to get our hearts broken."