Charlotte Hornets

For first time in Big 3 era, Miami Heat seems vulnerable

This time it feels different, doesn’t it? The Heat in the Big 3 Era always has found a way to keep things fresh and keep us fascinated, and now that means trying on a role unlike any the team has played in the previous three seasons. This time, for the first time since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade, Miami enters a postseason seeming a bit vulnerable – something close to the unlikeliest of underdogs.

I don’t mean right away, of course. The Heat should advance comfortably through the playoffs’ first round starting here at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, and a spot back in the Eastern Conference finals seems safe to assume.

Overall, though, would you bet on a third consecutive NBA championship? Doesn’t a three-peat and another parade along Biscayne Boulevard feel this season like a luxury you hope for but don’t expect?

That alone is different.

In Year 1 of this grand experiment, the nationally vilified and envied Heat was the quintessential favorite from the moment the Big 3 rose from the earth that night at the arena when this era was christened. Miami was expected to maraud unimpeded through the playoffs, straight to the championship that seemed its destiny.

In Year 2, the Heat was no less a favorite because the first season fell just short – the team was the favorite even more because of that. Entering the playoffs, the Heat was LeBron with something to prove, a team on a mission

In Year 3 at this time, one year ago, Miami was the reigning champion in full bloom, preening over a recent 27-game winning streak. All the dynasty talk seemed justified. Earned. They were big favorites once again.

Now? Miami is coming off its worst regular-season record of this magical four-year run, and the power has shifted to the Western Conference, where mighty San Antonio, Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers all would enjoy home-court advantage over the Heat in an NBA Finals.

“We love to be challenged,” James said. “We love to be doubted.”

Then congratulations, Miami. You got both. If a challenge and doubt are the fuel you crave, then your tank should be overflowing with high octane this postseason.

The Heat’s likeliest Eastern finals opponent would be Indiana (which would enjoy home-court advantage); Brooklyn (which was 4-0 against Miami this season); or Chicago (a Joakim Noah-led nuisance and nemesis for the Heat).

Survive that and you get, most likely, a Spurs team that looks like the best in the league without much question.

Odds at most Las Vegas sports books still have Miami as the title favorite, generally at 2-1 odds to 3-1 for San Antonio. But those lines purely reflect public opinion, which naturally would skew to the double defending champion with the sport’s greatest player. The betting lines also factor that Miami faces what seems an easier path to the Finals from the least-East than does San Antonio in the best-West.

The perception of the Heat as an underdog is otherwise pretty evident.

ESPN has a constantly updated, computerized playoff forecaster, and the latest one puts Miami’s championship odds at 7.2 percent. That’s a 1-in-14 chance of a three-peat. And that ranks only fourth-best in the NBA, after three Western powers led by San Antonio at 38.6 percent.

Doesn’t mean that computer model is accurate, but it’s another indicator that what has not been the case entering any of the three previous postseasons is true now:

Miami is hardly a consensus favorite outside of its own fans’ view.

And even many Heat fans seem unsure. For a small, anecdotal example, in a poll in my blog Wednesday, I asked if this year’s Heat team was better, about the same or not as good as the past two seasons, and “not as good” was leading at 60.6 percent, “comparable” at 37.0 percent, and “better” at only 2.4 percent.

Again, doesn’t mean those results are flawless, but they are another indicator of a different feel in the approach of this postseason. That feeling is doubt, in a place where cockiness used to thrive.

The reasons should start with how dominant San Antonio seems, but the reasons also are internal.

This is a gut feeling, but team chemistry does not seem quite as tight as it did last season. Remember, it was only three weeks ago, after a skid of seven loses in 11 games, that disharmony arose in a way it hadn’t been since the first year of the Big 3.

“We suck,” Bosh said last month. “There is no passion. There’s nothing.” Added LeBron James: “Too many excuses. Everything is an excuse. It’s very frustrating.” Coach Erik Spoelstra described his locker room as “angry.”

Part of the concern is Wade’s health, too, of course, after he missed 29 games – more than a third of the schedule – with various ailments or knee maintenance.

Can he be counted on for a full playoff run?

Health is an issue in general for Miami, an older team, more so than for most.

As Wade said: “When you want a veteran team, you better pack more ice.”

Only partly because of Wade, there also has been lineup shuffling that leaves a sense of ongoing tinkering in terms of both the starting five and the depth/rotation.

Miami used 20 different starting lineups this season. The fivesome that opened the season – the Big 3 plus Mario Chalmers and Udonis Halsem – wound up starting only five games together, total. When that five started again April 12, it was their first time on the floor for an opening tip since Nov. 7.

Depth also seems less reliable than in the past. Of the team’s two biggest additions, Greg Oden has been of limited use because of health, and Michael Beasley has fallen out of the regular rotation. Two key players off the bench, Ray Allen and Shane Battier, mostly just seem older. And the departed Mike Miller is greatly missed.

All of this together means another Miami title would, for the first time in the Big 3 era, feel like a bit of a surprise, which in and of itself gives this postseason an intrigue and unpredictability that feels welcome and fresh.

It seems strange to say of a two-time defending champion, but this year’s Heat is challenged to prove it is still good enough.