Backs against wall, no time to panic for Heat

June, 7, 2012
6/07/12
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Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
If we know Pat Riley, he's not panicking even if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are down 3-2.

BOSTON – There's a razor-thin line between paranoia and panic. After all of these years of high-stakes dealings with championship-contending teams, Pat Riley has perfected the process of toeing the crevice between those distinctions.

But times like these are what leave Riley, the Miami Heat team president, frequently on edge. Even in the midst of prosperity, when Riley had no reason to believe his team would be in this predicament, paranoia loomed.

Nearly a month ago, as the rest of his franchise was celebrating the announcement that LeBron James would become the first regular-season MVP in Heat history, Riley was already preparing his bunker mentality for the days ahead.

“I'm from the old school, so I'm scared to death, you know, of everything,” Riley said recently. “Trap doors. Land mines. All these things that coaches worry about -- or ex-coaches. That's why I try to stay away from [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra], because I'll get him worried. So we're in the game, and that's all we want to be.”

A lot has happened since Riley made those statements. Days later, the Heat would endure the strained abdominal injury that would knock Chris Bosh out of action for nine games. The Heat would be pushed into a 2-1 series deficit against the Indiana Pacers before rallying to advance.

And now they face the prospect of elimination after losing three consecutive games to trail the Celtics 3-2 entering Game 6 of the conference finals Thursday in Boston.

Based on their own expectations, which the Heat set at the start of the season, anything short of winning a championship in Year 2 of the James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade era in Miami would constitute failure. The players classified this season as a championship-or-bust scenario after squandering a 2-1 series lead to Dallas in the Finals last season. So falling even before reaching that stage this time around would be a significant step backward for the Heat.

But as Riley suggested, they're still in the game.

Barely.

Miami was the prohibitive favorite to win a title this season, but now the Heat face overwhelming odds just to keep their season alive with a victory Thursday that would force a Game 7 back in Miami on Saturday for the chance to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals.

Just about any player on Miami's roster can recite the numbers. The Heat have lost 15 of their last 16 games against the Celtics in Boston. In NBA history, teams that have taken a 3-2 lead have gone on to win the series 86 percent of the time. And teams are 7-0 this postseason when they've carried a 3-2 series lead.

But those statistics mean little to the Heat right now. Their only choice is to ignore the numbers and the outside noise.

Ron Elkman/Getty Images
Pat Riley has been a calming influence for Erik Spoelstra.



“Why would you think about that?” Wade said. “What would it do for you? Is it going to change anything? We play under a lot of pressure. We play under a lot of bright lights. But right now, we're focusing on the next game. This is a seven-game series and we have to go in and try to win this game, knowing that it's a must-win. All the rest of it, you can't let too much creep into your mind right now.”

In times like these, Wade joked that he relies on his noise-cancellation earphones to turn down the volume of the criticism and scrutiny centered on the Heat. It's a lesson Wade said he's even had to share with his two young sons when they're approached with negative comments.

“People are going to say things about their dad when we lose because everyone has an opinion,” Wade said. “These are the lessons I have to teach my boys. You walk away from it, you hold your head up and be a bigger person.”

Some of Wade's teammates have taken a different approach. Bosh, who will be playing Thursday in his second game since missing nine in a row to recover from the abdominal strain, chooses to embrace the moment -- and the accompanying anxiety of a Heat season on the brink.

“I kind of like pressure sometimes,” Bosh said. “You really rise to the occasion when the pressure is there. That's what it's about. Everybody is going to have to face that situation, and it's our turn right now. There's a little bit of extra added pressure. That can sometimes be a good thing, and I think it will be a great thing for us.”

The last time the Heat trailed in a playoff series, they responded with a historic performance in Game 4 against the Pacers in the conference semifinals. James and Wade combined for 70 points, 27 rebounds and 15 assists to rally the Heat to three consecutive victories to win the series.

But their backs weren't quite against the wall like this, and they're not facing the scrappy but unproven Pacers. These Celtics have key qualities Indiana lacked: championship experience and the mental toughness to withstand the Heat.

On top of that, they've been a headache of a hurdle for James and Wade throughout their careers in the playoffs. James repeatedly had postseason runs end in and against Boston during his time with Cleveland; in the 2010 postseason, Boston eliminated both James' Cavaliers and Wade's Heat. Miami had a breakthrough last season when James and Wade joined forces and eliminated Boston in five games on the way to the Finals.

But the Celtics are a bit healthier than they were last postseason and apparently a lot hungrier in what could be the final run for their veteran core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen alongside catalyst Rajon Rondo.

“It is fitting,” James said. “I know how much pain this team has given me over the years. So I guess it's only right that we'll be going up there in an elimination game. In order for us to keep our season going, we have to win in their building.”

Just as Riley envisioned the likelihood of tough times ahead for the Heat back on that day when James picked up his third MVP trophy, the exec also preached about the resolve and stability of his core group moving ahead.

“Every single series takes on a life of its own,” Riley said then. “Every single playoffs takes on a different form. And if you're healthy, then that's what you want. We're in the game. And I think we'll be in the game for a long time with these players.”
Riley's premonition may have given him a reason to be a bit paranoid about the prospects of these playoffs. His loyalty and commitment to his grand scheme will be tested more than at any time before.

But Pat isn't conditioned to panic.

Regardless of the outcome against Boston.

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