MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James was standing at his locker and chatting a few days ago when the conversation turned to which teams out there the Miami Heat might fear entering these playoffs.
James quickly gave his answer.
"We respect all," James said, "but fear none."
With those words it became obvious: Even after a regular season that seemed boring at times, and was reduced to a sputter at the finish, the Heat have no lack of confidence as they head to the playoffs. They're bidding for a third straight title, something only three franchises have done. And they're seeking a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, something only the Celtics and Lakers have accomplished.
The 54-28 mark, No. 2 seed in the East, 11-14 record down the stretch ... if there's another parade on Biscayne Boulevard in June, few will recall that grind.
"We'll be tested," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Our guys understand that and we embrace the competition. When you get into this second season you have no idea what's going to happen. That competition, that fierce competition, it either brings out the best in you — or it brings out something else. Our guys, they thrive on this time of the year. That doesn't guarantee anything, but everybody is looking forward to getting started."
Miami opens at home against Charlotte on Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round series.
The last time the teams met, James scored a career-high 61 points. For whatever reason, the Heat have cooled big-time since.
They wasted numerous chances to topple Indiana for the No. 1 seed in the East, and wound up basically surrendering before being mathematically eliminated from the conference race so James and Chris Bosh could rest. They went 2-6 in their last eight games.
Then again, there's nothing that says the Heat have to be title-ready Sunday. Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst, thinks Miami can play its way into playoff form.
"It doesn't mean they're going to sweep their way through, but I just feel like they'll have methodical series wins against their first two opponents," Van Gundy said. "And then the challenges will start in the Eastern Conference finals for them."
There's an old axiom in sports about teams not being able to flip the proverbial switch when the games get important, that it typically happens more organically. The Heat, they're hoping to find that switch and reverse its direction fast.
"We need to be at our best," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "We have not been close. But there is no better time than now to figure it out. It will be a good story, hopefully, when we do."
Those who have been through the challenge that Miami drew this year — borne of its own success — understand the monotony of it all.
Brian Shaw played for the Lakers when they won three straight titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. The last of those teams didn't finish with the top seed out West, or even a division title for that matter. But when the stakes were highest, they were unstoppable, again.
"They will play better," said Shaw, who now coaches the Denver Nuggets. "I think it's just a natural boredom that happens because in the whole scheme of things, the slate is going to be wiped clean and they'll be refreshed and recharged and they'll come with a second wind when the playoffs start ... almost like a championship hangover, just waiting for the good part to start."
The good part has arrived.
Dwyane Wade missed 28 games — a maintenance plan that started on the second night of the schedule — in the regular season to get ready for this time of year. James fully understands the historical ramifications of what the Heat are about to try to do. Spoelstra has tinkered with the rotation almost nonstop, trying to find the right combination, and almost certainly will continue doing so throughout the playoff run.
Boredom won't be a factor, real or imagined, any more.
"It could be a whole lot worse in this league, in dealing with the human condition of great previous success and not living in the past," Spoelstra said. "And that's something you have to learn how to do as a group. There's not really necessarily a manual on it and most teams don't have to go through it. We're one of the teams that do. It's a great place to be."