Post-LeBron era finally to begin for Heat

Heat open 2014 season versus Wizards

It is a feeling the Miami Heat haven't experienced in quite some time.

For the past four years, they were looked upon as the hunted. They were the team everyone in the league, especially the Eastern Conference, aspired to defeat.

Things have since changed.

With a revamped roster and LeBron James-less starting lineup, the Heat find themselves no longer standing above their peers. They are right in the middle. The journey as being a "hunter" begins in Wednesday's season-opener against the Washington Wizards at AmericanAirlines Arena.

"Just get your knife and go out in the field and go get them," center Chris Bosh said. "It's a lot easier being the hunter, I'll tell you that much. It's really exciting for us because nobody really is expecting us to do anything …That's given us some extra fuel to go out there and compete every night and given us some excitement. We think we have a special group of guys."

The rest of the league will get its first look at the Heat in the post-LeBron era. James left for the Cleveland Cavaliers during free agency, leaving behind two titles in four NBA Finals appearances. The Heat have actually used the lowered expectations as motivation. With the Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and even the Wizards receiving more preseason attention, it's created the perfect ambush environment.

"I think we're all excited," Bosh said. "We've been waiting for a while. This is a time to really showcase what we've been doing, the talent that we have and the teamwork that we're going to bring to this season. The fans should be excited for it."

Guard Dwyane Wade and Bosh are the only returning opening-night starters. Luol Deng replaces James while Shawne Williams starts at power forward as Josh McRoberts continues to recover from offseason toe surgery. The most intriguing of the new starters is fourth-year guard Norris Cole, who unseated Mario Chalmers during training camp.

"It's great to start," Cole said. "I don't want to just start. I want to be able to play well, play consistently well. That challenge is going to start [Wednesday], and I'm looking forward to it."

The Wizards, who nearly advanced to last year's conference finals, will be without starters Nene and guard Bradley Beal. Nene was among four players —DeJuan Blair, Daniel Orton and Xavier Silas — suspended for leaving the team's bench area during a preseason game against the Bulls. Beal is recovering from a broken wrist.

Still, the Heat are focused more on themselves than the opponent. They can't have it any other way, considering the amount of change.

"It's what we've all been waiting for," Wade said. "It's Game One for a new kind of theme around here. We'll see how we do."

Bosh said this is the closest to a playoff experience in October because of the uncertainty. With so many new faces, it was arguably the most strenuous training camp since 2010. For coach Erik Spoelstra, it was more about Xs and Os than dealing with the task of managing the egos of three All-Stars.

"It's different a lot times during when your team changes," Spoelstra said. "We've had to spend a great deal of time putting in our system, instilling our culture, what's important to us when we're trying to develop a mind-set … It's been a very invigorating process in training camp."

The Heat hope it prepared them for their attempt at proving the doubters wrong. The approach is no different than previous years.

"We're always hunting," Cole said. "We always play with a chip on our shoulder. We always have something to prove. We don't really worry about what everyone else says. We want to prove it to each other. We work hard every day for a reason, and that's to win."

srichardson@tribpub.com

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