Friday, June 10, 2011
The Heat's final test of adversity
By Tom Haberstroh
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
The Heat say they like having their backs against the wall. Ask and you shall receive.
DALLAS -- This is what the Heat always wanted. Or at least, that is what they want us to believe.
The Heat are down 3-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals, one loss away from fighting all this way to go home empty-handed. But the Heat insist this adversity fuels their fire. From the outset of the season, they have maintained that the painful losses represent an essential ingredient of the so-called “process.” This wouldn’t be easy.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra engineered one of the best defenses in the NBA, but the most impressive defensive mechanism he implemented this season could be heard only on the postgame podium. Following the 112-103 loss to Dallas in Game 5, Spoelstra performed his finest spin-doctoring act of the year, saying the Heat were “able to steal one” in Dallas.
Apparently, losing three out of their last four games was all part of the plan.
“We wouldn't have it any other way than the hard way,” Spoelstra said. “This is an opportunity for us.”
Their backs are against the wall, and the margin of error is gone. But this is what Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat wanted all along, they’ll tell you. From Day 1, they established a bunker mentality in training camp, kicking off their season at Hurlburt Field and Elgin Air Force Base in Florida’s panhandle. There, they learned how to fight through the coming adversity and cope during the imminent assault from the outside world.
The message wasn’t lost on anybody: The Heat were preparing for battle this season.
And so far, the “band of brothers,” as Spoelstra likes to call them, has survived. The incessant boos and hate-filled road atmosphere forced the Heat to take on the role as villain, even if they were never fully comfortable with playing the antagonists. Amid all the fury that the NBA and those outside the league unleashed upon them, the Heat have managed to turn negatives into positives, prevailing when it mattered most.
Until now, this season has been a season of triumph, though it hasn’t been easy.
"There is going to be a process with this. There's a lot of expectations and a lot of pressure out there, but we have our own timetable, and we knew this wasn't going to be easy." -- Erik Spoelstra, Oct. 26, 2010 after season-opening loss to Boston
The Heat overcame the Celtics. Paul Pierce publicly mocked the Heat on Twitter in November, and Boston defeated Miami in three of four regular-season meetings. The Heat licked their wounds and responded by trouncing the big-brother Celtics in the postseason, beating them in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The losses and adversity that Miami endured against Boston in the regular season paid dividends.
"There is nothing else we can do other than stay together and stay with this. One of these days we will break through.” -- Erik Spoelstra, March 6, 2011, after loss to Chicago
The Heat conquered the Bulls. Derrick Rose and the Bulls embarrassed the Heat in a three-game sweep during the regular season, provoking some in the Heat locker room to weep after the crushing loss in March. Sure enough, that adversity proved to be a motivator later on. They met again in the East finals, and the Heat returned the favor by nearly sweeping the Bulls to punch a ticket to the Finals.
"It’s certainly not easy right now. The only thing we can do is keep on grinding and not ... let ... go ... of ... the ... rope.” -- Erik Spoelstra, March 8, 2011, after losing to Portland, their fifth loss in a row
The Heat persevered through losing streaks. The Heat’s Game 5 loss to the Mavericks marks the first time Miami has lost consecutive games since losing to the Trail Blazers 105-96 in early March. That Portland defeat was the final loss of the Heat’s longest slide of the season, which lasted five games. Just when everything seemed to unravel, the Heat bounced back, winning 15 of their next 18 games to earn the No. 2 seed in the East playoffs. After losing to Portland, three months would pass before the Heat would lose consecutive games again.
And here we are.
“Nothing that we've achieved this year has been easy. So we're certainly not going to start now.” -- Erik Spoelstra, June 9, 2011, after losing Game 5 in the Finals
The Heat now find themselves on the brink of elimination. The road has not been easy, but they will call upon the trying times of the past. The losses, the adversity, the "healthy conflicts" (as Spoelstra deemed them) -- each of these events has hardened the team like a callus. The positive spinning after defeats used to seem nothing more than a coping mechanism in desperate times, but the Heat have been vindicated up until now.
Sunday’s Game 6 is their mortal test. This is their final exam. Since training camp at a military base, the Heat have prepared for this moment, a chance to quiet all the doubters and rise above the adversity. They want the last laugh, but this is uncharted territory for them. In LeBron's previous trip to the Finals, he and the Cavs were swept by the Spurs in '07. Chris Bosh has never even been in the Finals before.
But Dwyane Wade has been here before. After losing two straight to open the 2006 Finals before bouncing back to win the title, Wade can draw on past experience, more distant than the last calendar year, to overcome this latest trial. And with a bruised hip, he must overcome personal adversity of his own.
The Heat seek redemption. They found it against Boston, and against Chicago, but their work is cut out for them against Dallas. Win two, or their quest for a championship will end without vindication.
It won’t be easy, but they asked for this moment.
Be careful what you wish for, Miami. You might just get it.