The difference between the 2012-13 season and the previous two in South Beach is the added hardware and bling. AmericanAirlines Arena is glittering with gold after the Heat’s second title in seven years and first of their Big Three Era.
Other than that, little has changed. The Heat are geared to compete for another championship with the addition of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, and they looked impressive in their debut, a 120-107 pasting of the Celtics.
The Heat’s core remains intact, with 13 players back from last season, when the target of the rest of the league was squarely on the middle of that flashy Heat logo. Miami has been the league’s most despised team since LeBron James and Chris Bosh headed south to join Dwyane Wade.
While their 2010-11 season ended in a disheartening NBA Finals loss to the Mavericks, last season was triumphant, especially for James, who was named the regular-season MVP and Finals MVP, eliminating the stigma of being one of the greatest players never to win a title.
So what now? The Heat enter the season as the favorites to do it again, accustomed to the scrutiny of being the league’s bad boys. NBA purists did not want the league’s first superteam built by free agency to be so successful so quickly.
“We’re the hunted, and rightfully so,” said Wade. “We wouldn’t want it any other way. Any other team is going to circle our name on the calendar. We have teams like that as well. So those are the good teams in the league.”
The Heat managed to talk Mike Miller into coming back and also retained James Jones, Joel Anthony, Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, and Shane Battier. James now understands the rigors of winning a championship and said he is prepared for the next challenge.
“We know what another year is all about,” he said. “We know what our long-term goal is. We’re not going to take shortcuts. It’s a process. It’s always been that way for us and it will continue to be.
“It’s one of the best, if not the best [team I’ve been on]. But we’ve got some work to do. We’re not near where we need to be. We understand. We’re going to take care of the process.”
James said there will be no personal hangover from his crowning moment.
“I just buy into my ability and what I believe in,” he said. “I put more pressure on myself than anybody. I always want the best, not only for myself but for my teammates, and I’ve always tried to go out there and play at that high level.
“I’ve heard a lot about what my career should be and what it shouldn’t be, but I go out and control my own destiny.”
The Heat were hammered Friday night by the Knicks, 104-84, a shining example that even the league’s best team needs cohesion. Allen followed his 19-point effort against the Celtics with 5 against the Knicks.
Wade is not surprised. He didn’t expect the Heat to come out smoking.
He said it will take “roughly 20 games. Everyone’s got to get comfortable with different lineups. Coach got to get comfortable with the rotation and the lineups.
“You give yourself a 20-game pad to try to make sure you get it down, especially with Ray Allen, someone we’re going to try to incorporate into it. He’s got to get familiar with us and we’ve got to get familiar with him.”
The Heat understand the journey and the struggle, and were reminded quickly that even teams that are shorthanded — such as the Knicks without Amar’e Stoudemire — are looking to upend the champs.
“We don’t have a total makeover,” said Wade. “We know our game. We tweaked a few things, so we know what we need to do in that sense, so it makes it a little easier.
“It’s still not 100 percent comfortable. We have to figure it out. It’s a new year. It’s not last year. It’s not just going to be automatic.
“Although there will be times where it will be gravy, it’s going to be other times where a few things are going to be off. But we’ll be fine.”
Harden No. 1 in Houston
Major trades on the eve of the season are rare, but NBA observers awoke last Sunday morning to find that Oklahoma City sixth man James Harden had been dealt to the Rockets in a multi-player deal that included Kevin Martin going to the Thunder.
Harden is considered around the league as a potential franchise cornerstone, and his Olympic experience is expected to boost his confidence this season. But Harden wanted a maximum extension from the Thunder as a fourth-year player — a scenario the Celtics may have to deal with next fall with Avery Bradley — and the Thunder’s offer was a reported $6 million short of the $60 million he could have earned.
But if you think Harden bailed on the Thunder for a mere $6 million, it’s more complicated than that. A trade to the Rockets, with their salary cap space, meant Harden could sign a five-year, $80 million contract.
Harden has desired to be a No. 1 option the past few years, but that wasn’t going to happen in Oklahoma City. So now he’s in Houston, where general manager Daryl Morey will make him the team’s primary scoring option. Morey believes the 23-year-old, who scored 37 points in his Rockets debut and 45 Friday night, is a franchise player.
This will bring more responsibility and more pressure to produce, and Dwyane Wade knows something about that, having taken on the Eastern Conference nearly by himself in the pre-LeBron James days in Miami.
“You look at Harden and he was the X-factor on that team [Thunder] and it made them very, very tough,” Wade said. “It’s different when you come off the bench; when you have a big night, everybody talks about it.
“It’s what he wanted, in a sense. He wanted his worth and he wanted to be featured and he’s going to get featured. He could live up to the billing, but the grind is tough, every night to step up to what everyone believes that you should do.”
Martin mixed into the team concept as well as can be expected for the Thunder’s opener against the Spurs, but his transition will take time.
“It shakes up the West a little bit,” Wade said of the trade. “I think both teams got pretty good fair value.”
Times change for father, son
Austin Rivers has begun his NBA career, and his father, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is allowing him to make his own decisions and experience the pro life without heavy influence from dad.
Austin Rivers sprained his right ankle in a preseason game against the Mavericks and had to be carried off the court. He was back in the Hornets lineup four days later against Miami, but left again with a sprained ankle.
Rivers made it to the regular-season opener Wednesday, scoring 7 points on 1-for-9 shooting with 2 assists and 3 turnovers in 24 minutes.
Doc Rivers said he had no input on whether Austin should play on his ankle. Doc is a close friend of New Orleans coach Monty Williams, and he trusts Williams to make the call.
“I think he’ll learn like we all learn,” Doc said. “I was shocked he was playing [against the Heat]. I thought he was hurt. And then I see him on the floor.
“The good news is, if you’re them, you’ve got a player who wants to play. And now they probably learned what we learned with Kevin [Garnett] — you can’t trust them. You’ve got to tell him he’s sitting down because he’s one of those kids that just keeps playing and thinks he’s above injury. That [injury] probably taught him a good lesson.”
The Celtics don’t face the Hornets until Jan. 16 at TD Garden, but the anticipation for the father-son matchup is already brewing in the Rivers household in Orlando.
“I don’t think about it a lot unless someone asks and I have to prepare myself for it, to be honest,” Doc said. “The only thing I know, at least in my household, is no one will be cheering for me. That’ll be a first.
“I was laughing when I went home. It was New Orleans gear all over the place. What the heck’s going on in here? My sons are wearing it. My wife has a hat on. So they kind of jumped ship quick.
“That’s OK. I want to win. I’m not going to let that dude win, that’s not going to happen.”
Another reason Doc feels comfortable allowing Austin to navigate his own way through the NBA is the amount of friends around the league that Austin has already amassed. Doc is stunned at how many NBA players Austin already knows at age 20.
“It’s just so different,” said Doc. “It doesn’t make me mad or anything, it’s just different because [the younger players] do all know each other.
“I’m amazed the guys in the league that have texted me, ‘Hey, do you have Austin’s number?’ because they know him from something.”
Doc was well into his NBA career when Austin was born in 1992 and can’t relate to how familiar players are with their counterparts now.
“First of all, we didn’t have cell phones until my eighth year, so there was no communication,” he said. “There was no NBA TV. You didn’t even know how other teams looked on the West Coast. I’m talking physically. You didn’t even know how they literally looked some of the time. So it was different times.”
Film hits KG close to home
The ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the life and death of 1980s Chicago high school phenom Ben Wilson has a connection to Kevin Garnett, who played high school ball at Farragut Academy in his senior season in 1995. Farragut was featured in the film as a school that opposed Wilson’s Simeon High School.
Garnett said he has not seen the program but he is familiar with the Wilson story.
“When I first got to Chicago, my coach, WolfNelson, the first thing he showed me was ‘The Ben Wilson Story,’ ” Garnett said. “Some of the footage on that ‘30-30’ is from this video. That’s the first time I saw.
“I saw probably four or five games, it was a rough edit. That was in ’94, so the things that are just now coming out through this documentary, that’s the first thing he showed me — not to just show me some of the players that were in Chicago but the history of [the city] and understanding streets and understanding neighborhoods and how the culture is in Chicago and to understand the severity, and that no one is immune to that reality.”
Wilson, the No. 1 high school prospect in 1984, was shot and killed by another teenager after a dispute near Simeon High just before his senior season. Garnett transferred to Farragut from Mauldin High School in South Carolina after he was arrested in a dispute between students. Garnett was not involved in the fight.
“The first thing you understand in Chicago is understanding the laws of respect,” said Garnett. “You walk in the streets every day and you understand the neighborhoods, 16th, the West Side of Chicago, you quickly grasp that [culture] and that’s the way you’re able to get by day to day.”
Former Celtic JaJuan Johnson, who was the final cut of the Rockets after being acquired in the Courtney Lee deal, has made himself eligible for the NBADL draft and is expected to be a top five pick. Johnson must play with more aggression if he wants to make it back on an NBA roster. The Celtics were not pleased with his slow development last season, which made him expendable in the offseason. Other players of interest who are eligible for the draft: Shelvin Mack (waived by Washington), Justin Harper (waived by Orlando), Christian Eyenga (waived by Orlando), DeVon Hardin (former Sonics/Thunder draft pick), Darryl Partin (former Boston University standout), and Travis Leslie (waived by the Clippers). The Magic’s release of Harper came as a surprise because he appeared ready to make an impact this season. Coach Jacque Vaughn chose Josh McRoberts and DeQuan Jones over Harper and Eyenga.
Neither fit nor fitting
The Hornets are wondering whether Eric Gordon will ever be the franchise cornerstone they envisioned after it was learned that he will be out indefinitely with the right knee injury that cost him all but nine games last season. Gordon has never wanted to play for the Hornets and signed an offer sheet with Phoenix over the summer, lobbying Hornets management not to match the four-year, $58 million deal. But the Hornets matched, and Gordon’s focus has been questioned since.
Last Thursday’s Knicks-Nets game in Brooklyn that was postponed by the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy was rescheduled for Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Barclays Center . . . Eddy Curry was not able to attend the Heat’s ring ceremony last Tuesday — as free agent center Juwan Howard did —
Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashurn@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.