Given the sloppy ball-handling and shaky shooting, Game 3 was precisely the sort of game that the Miami Heat would have lost last year. But they didn’t and by finding a way to grind it out, they may have stepped in the right direction of getting the public back on their side.

In an era defined by words like austerity and where people like Jamie Dimon are treated like demigods, it’s understandable why the Heat are despised by large components of the populace.  Had their creation story taken place in say, 2005, the backlash would have been limited to Northeast Ohio. Whether it’s true or not, the Heat seem to a lot of people as stylized and people struggle to relate to those who always seem to be getting over. The Heat, through a confluence of shaky PR decisions and sometimes shakier play, seem to represent the reprehensible. They’re lumped in with the dregs of society and associated with side-eye worthy people like oil barons, reality TV stars and stockbrokers. But last night’s game (if they go on and win the Finals) may help to turn the tide.

Miami played a scrappy and almost desperate game yesterday. They went 31-35 from the free throw line like they were some underdog March Madness team trying to unseat a more talented squad.  Lebron James and Dwyane Wade’s hands were especially quick and they both exhibited intelligence and gusto.  James played the first quarter like a previous era power forward, putting himself between the backboard and any OKC player who tried to grab the ball. He’s had high rebound numbers all season, but the way he grabbed those 14 boards last night just felt different.  

The Heat won ugly and people like ugly. Even if they aspire to all the requisite accomplishments of upward mobility, folks still want to see a scab story.  Miami shot less than 38% from the field and still won because they out-hungered the Thunder. After giving up 24 fast-break points to Oklahoma City in Game 1, the Heat have allowed 23 total fast-break points in the following two matchups. That’s textbook on how you turn the tide.

People respect success but they also respect perseverance. Watching LeBron and Chris Bosh play with both abandon and physicality will certainly win them some new converts.  The average person might not understand the intricacies of those guys' futuristic skill-sets, but people do understand grabbing an offensive board and then bullying your way for a putback. People, especially men, need and want to see examples of demonstrated manhood. Even if those examples are sometimes clichéd, there are always going to be times when dudes want to see players battle…in a literal sense. Get bloody, get crazy, get whatever – just resonate passion and desire. Nut up or shut up is a battle cry that the Heat yelled out louder in Game 3.

Whether or not they keep this up for the rest of the series will go a long way in winning this team its badly desired ring and establishing them as a team people will support. They can finally disassemble the narrative that’s been hanging over their heads and move towards the goals stated way back in the summer of 2010.

In response to the Heat’s toughness, nobody can say OKC played weak or felt entitled in last night’s contest. They just didn’t play as smart and certainly didn’t execute their offense with the usual clarity the public has grown accustomed. They shot 15-24 from the free throw line – a killer number for a road playoff game –  and had several unforced turnovers in the waning minutes of the game. They took more bad shots than usual, they fouled the Heat jump-shooters on 3-point attempts and they were undone by a couple of unforced, late-game turnovers. In short they played sloppy. Unlike Miami, though, they aren’t in any danger of losing fans or alienating the rest of the free world.

However, they are on the cusp of wiping off the sheen of their feel-good story. They are, of course, still a young team and they have the ability to bounce back in Game 4. The thing is, the Heat are starting to pick up some good habits and it remains to be seen if the 2012 Finals are the beginning of OKC’s story or just the latest chapter of the Miami Heat.