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Heat’s feisty victory over physical Thunder showed Heat won’t be intimidated

By Joseph Goodman, McClatchy Newspapers –

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra began his news conference after the Miami’s most significant victory since the All-Star break defending the perception of his team.

Dwyane Wade echoed his coach’s attitude while also scoffing at a belief around the NBA that the Heat is “soft.”

Udonis Haslem then took to the airwaves to throw a barb at Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who has a history of roughing up the Heat’s stars.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Heat finally began to show signs of breaking out of its post-All-Star Game malaise. Miami’s victory against the Thunder rekindled memories of the team that began the season like a steamroller, crushing competition so thoroughly that six members of the team were selected to participate in the midseason All-Star festivities.

Trailing Chicago by two games in the Eastern Conference standings with 13 games remaining in the regular season, the Heat (39-14) can add to its momentum Friday with a victory against another tough-as-nails Western Conference opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies. Like several Western Conference opponents, the Grizzlies, fifth in the West with victories against the Thunder and Lakers in the past two weeks, present a specific challenge to the Heat, which has struggled against teams loaded down with physical centers and power forwards.

It was a physical game on Wednesday that finally brought out the best in the Heat.

Playoff feel

First, Perkins picked up a technical foul for bonking Wade in the head midway through the second quarter. Minutes later, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook pulled LeBron James to the ground during a dunk attempt and was whistled for a flagrant foul. The Heat responded to the Thunder’s bully tactics with an energy level in the second and third quarters that enlivened the sold-out crowd inside AmericanAirlines Arena and replicated the atmosphere of a playoff game.

“It just put us into that mode,” Wade said. “Obviously, a lot of people think, for some reason, they think we’re soft, and they feel they can take hits at us.”

With the Thunder attempting to establish itself as the more physical team, Wade huddled his team and demanded more toughness.

“I brought them together and said, ‘Listen, this is playoff basketball what we’re playing (Wednesday night) and look what they’re doing to us, look what they’re doing to our guys whenever we got by them,’ “ Wade said. “At that point, they were making sure we didn’t lay it up.”

In so many words, Wade gave the order to match the Thunder blow for blow.

“Not in a dirty way, but we have to make sure we impact them when they go to the basket,” Wade said. “We can’t get touch fouls, and we can’t move out the way.”

Meanwhile, Haslem, who was on the bench at the time of Perkins’ technical foul, stood up from his seat and began jawing with the Thunder’s cantankerous center. Haslem, during a radio interview on Thursday with WQAM, questioned Perkins’ tough-guy reputation.

“I think anybody can be a tough guy with a thousand people watching on TV and referees who call fouls and stop the game and different things like that,” Haslem said on WQAM. “I don’t see him being any tough guy that he puts on the show to be, at all.”

Haslem then added, “If we were playing at the park, I don’t think he’d be doing all that.”

Budding rivalry

Haslem’s remarks only added to the colorful history between the Heat and Thunder. Last season, Kevin Durant called Chris Bosh a “fake tough guy.” Earlier this season, Perkins had a back-and-forth with James after James commented on Twitter about Perkins’ role in a monstrous dunk by Clippers forward Blake Griffin.

The verbal taunts, the technical and flagrant fouls, the jawing, the Thunder’s blowout in Oklahoma City and the Heat’s revenge on Wednesday: It all makes for a colorful backdrop if the Heat and Thunder meet in the NBA Finals in June. Until then, the Heat will be operating in the reality of its own “truth” as “warriors” of the hardwood, according to Spoelstra.

“Every day for our group it’s about our truth,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not anybody else’s truth. We know what we’re capable of. We’ve all been disappointed with how we’ve been playing, but we all know we have an incredibly high ceiling and (Wednesday) was a competitive, warrior game where our guys can go in the locker room and look each other in the eyes.

“And we didn’t necessarily have some of these performances against top-tier teams, but our guys showed up with a real warrior-tough mentality.”

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