The Heat's season appears to have morphed into a reality-TV series, one in which even the most innocuous shoulder bumps and mundane comments are seized upon and turned into a week's worth of sensationalized programming. Yet one of its most important moments happened in the humdrum privacy of a morning shootaround last Thursday, when power forward Chris Bosh—among the NBA's more serene stars—had a rare alpha episode of his own. "He was going full speed, he yelled a couple times, he was keeping guys in it—'Come on, let's go!'" says Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "One time he dunked and said, 'Come on, we're going to do this tonight!' Everybody looked to see his expression."
They realized he wasn't kidding around: The Heat had lost five straight, and a visit by the two-time defending champion Lakers loomed less than nine hours away. That night Bosh poured in 16 of his team-high 24 points in the first half to lead Miami to a 94--88 win, after which Spoelstra cited Bosh's moment of assertiveness earlier in the day. "I was surprised by the reaction," says Bosh. "I didn't even know anybody took notice."
The win over the Lakers gave the Heat a sweep of the two-game season series, though it did nothing to improve Miami's 0--9 mark through Sunday against the Spurs, Celtics, Bulls and Mavericks, the other four teams in the league with better records. The Miami experiment so far has yielded more questions than answers. Is this self-appointed trio of young stars Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade defined by its 21--1 streak that ran from late November through early January? Or by its 1-for-18 performance on game-winning or tying shots in the final 10 seconds of games? Does the fact that the Heat has had a chance to win all but three games in the last five minutes prove how far it has come? Or does the fact that Miami is 1--8 in games decided by three points or fewer show how much the team still has to learn?
Bosh admits the Heat had been "embarrassed on national TV" during the recent skid, a 10-day stretch characterized by poor execution and off-the-court drama, including Spoelstra's revelation after a loss to Chicago that unnamed players were shedding tears in the locker room, and TNT's Charles Barkley's excoriating the team to "quit whining and bitching like a little girl." And yet at week's end, as fans around the league savored the seemingly inevitable implosion of the Heat, the team remained within 2½ games of Eastern Conference--leading Boston.
If Miami is going to convert the Decision into an instant victory parade, one of the keys will be the play of the 6'11" Bosh as he gears up for the postseason, when size matters most. After repeatedly chastising himself in public for not demanding the ball in the post, he followed his strong inside play against Los Angeles with a versatile 18 points on 11 shots in a 118--85 win over the visiting Grizzlies last Saturday. Though Bosh has put up solid numbers (18.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game through Sunday) and earned a sixth straight All-Star invitation, he has been derided as one of the league's "fake tough guys," as Thunder forward Kevin Durant put it after losing to the Heat in January. "Chris is always the one they're going to attack, whether it's on offense or defense or with words," says Wade. "He has to understand that and take that as a chip on his shoulder."
His critics should be reminded that Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol had previously been dismissed as power forwards who weren't known for mixing it up inside. "They must have the formula for something, because they've won the last three [championships]," says Bosh. "Just because a guy isn't all big and brawling and pushing everybody around, that doesn't matter—what matters is their competitive spirit. Those guys have been doing it, and hopefully I'll be the next one to do it."
In spite of their failures in the biggest moments, Bosh insists that he, James and Wade are steadily learning their roles. "We're still one year removed from [each] being the main guy taking 20 shots and carrying the team on our back on a nightly basis," Bosh says. "I had to learn to move without the ball, and I'm still learning to do it. That's one facet of the game, like the 50 million other things I have to work on that I didn't have to know before. One thing I've learned is that it's easy to shoot a lot of shots, but it's harder to fill a role."
The difficulties in learning those new roles were evident in the final seconds of Miami's 87--86 loss to the visiting Bulls on March 6, when James was isolated on the left side. When he was in Cleveland, James would draw the defense and pass to the open man. But as he drove on the 6'11" Joakim Noah, neither Bosh nor Wade had moved into open space, leaving James no choice but to force up—and miss—a difficult runner over Noah.
After spending his first seven NBA years in the relative isolation of Toronto, Bosh finds his eyes are still adjusting to the harsh light of scrutiny experienced by the Heat. "It's a trip to listen to everything, and you've got to laugh to keep from crying sometimes," he says. "There's going to be somebody different saying something every day. I don't get why people do it, but we're going to use that as ammunition to come together."
The 24-hour news cycle began during last summer's free-agency period, which culminated with 10,000 fans packing American Airlines Arena for a celebration last July that now makes it difficult for the Heat to complain about sensationalism. Yet the outside pressures clearly exist, and they have helped squeeze the Heat stars closer together.