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Heat looks to be team to beat next season, too

It took little time for Helearn play as team but Dwyane Wade (left) LeBrJames (second from left) Co. put everything

It took a little time for the Heat to learn to play as a team, but Dwyane Wade (left), LeBron James (second from left) and Co. put everything together in time to win the NBA title. | Lynne Sladky~AP

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Updated: July 25, 2012 6:47AM

The sting of the Miami Heat’s NBA championship is still fresh in Chicago. But the pain of seeing LeBron James holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy while Derrick Rose hobbles around town after knee surgery isn’t the worst of it.

Even more ominous is that the Heat won the title by playing like a real team, not with three stars playing chess and two teammates playing checkers. Not only is the Heat not going away, but it figures to become even better now that Dwyane Wade has ceded the alpha-dog role to LeBron James.

It would have been a shame if the Heat had won the title last season because it didn’t deserve it. After the Dallas Mavericks upset the Heat in the NBA Finals, coach Rick Carlisle spoke for multitudes of fans when he called his team’s championship a ‘‘colossal statement’’ about the game and how the Mavericks played it as a team.

‘‘Trusting the pass, playing collectively, believing in each other,’’ Carlisle said after the Mavericks’ clinching victory in Game 6. ‘‘[The Heat’s] talent is undeniable. At some point, it’s going to carry the day. There’s no doubt about that. But their time is not now.

‘‘Our team is not about individual ability. It’s about collective will, collective grit, collective guts. We knew it was very important that we won this series . . . because of what the game is about and what the game should stand for.’’

In other words, if the Heat is going to win championships with the ‘‘Big Three,’’ it’s not too much to ask that it play like a championship team.

The Heat didn’t do that last season; it did this season. In fact, by the end of the Finals, it was the Heat playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played and making the Oklahoma City Thunder look like amateurs.

The Heat nearly lost to the Boston Celtics, but only because Chris Bosh was injured. When Bosh started, the Heat was 9-1 in the playoffs.

Beyond the Big Three, ‘‘supporting cast’’ members took turns making the difference in the Finals. Shane Battier scored 17 points in Game 2, Mario Chalmers scored 25 in Game 4 and Mike Miller scored 23 in Game 5.

‘‘We believe we built a team that’s going to be around for a while,’’ Heat president Pat Riley said. ‘‘Our goal is to hopefully come back every year.’’

That’s a lot more understated than, ‘‘Not two, not three, not four,’’ but it’s more threatening than ever. Not only is the Heat getting better, but the major contenders might be getting worse. Who is going to beat this team in 2012-13?

The Bulls are almost certain to be treading water, with Rose expected to miss half the regular season or more and Luol Deng possibly out at the beginning of the season.

The Celtics are in need of rejuvenation — and unlikely to get it — after blowing a last-gasp shot at beating the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers are established contenders, but where are they going to improve? Deron Williams could put the Pacers over the top, but that’s a long shot.

The New York Knicks are the New York Knicks, doomed by ill-fitting All-Stars Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony and the Phil Jackson seal of disapproval.

The Philadelphia 76ers still need a difference-maker. The Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard seems too easily distracted to succeed. Joining Williams with the Brooklyn Nets has promise, but that team has too far to come.

Three days ago, it seemed it was just a matter of time before the Thunder caught the Heat. But after being exposed from top to bottom in Game 5, it has a lot of work to do to catch up.

Just like everybody else in the NBA.

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