- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
- 0 Shares
Two free throws.
All LeBron James had to do was make two free throws and the Heat likely leave Chicago with a win on Thursday. And considering the Bulls' starting backcourt combined for 9 points on 4-of-19 shooting, the game shouldn't even have come down to the closing seconds.
But it did.
And when James' first shot ricocheted off the back of the rim, Miami's fading chance of locking up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs ricocheted away, as well.
LeBron played a great game, but again it wasn't enough.
How many more games like this is Pat Riley going to watch before he's had enough?
As it stands, if the Heat win a championship this year, they're going to have to do it the hard way -- on the road.
But if the Heat don't win it all, be sure to take pictures because this incarnation of the team will never be together again.
And it shouldn't.
Two summers ago, when Riley did the impossible -- assemble James, Wade and Bosh -- I'm sure his goal was not to lock up the No. 2 seed in the East.
It wasn't to be defending Eastern Conference champion.
It was to win NBA championships.
Not chip chips.
And with each passing year the team fails to do so, Riley sees the window of opportunity close just a little bit more -- something he knows quite a bit about.
During the early '90s, as the coach of an incredibly talented New York Knicks team, Riley saw chance after chance snatched away by Michael Jordan. That trend continued when he became coach of the Heat in 1995. After stepping down in 2003 to focus on being the Heat's GM, he brought in Shaq for the 2004-05 season (Wade's second year in the league) and saw Miami go up 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.
But then the Heat lost the next two games.
Another opportunity gone.
The official reason why Stan Van Gundy stepped down as Miami's coach in December 2005 was to spend more time with his family. But the team was 11-10 at the time and anyone with half a brain could see Riley was not going to sit back and let yet another opportunity to win it all be squandered.
Not again. Not on his watch.
Here Riley is again, overseeing an immensely talented team, equipped with the wisdom to know that windows don't stay open forever.
When he brought in Shaq, he understood that. When Detroit Pistons president Joe Dumars brought in Rasheed Wallace, Dumars understood that. When Boston's Danny Ainge brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Ainge too understood that. These men have all lost and won on the game's biggest stage and know how quickly opposing teams react and improve, how stars' ability to dominate can fade.
In the summer of 2010, the sky was the limit for this Miami team. Today Wade is 30, LeBron is damn near bald, and Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are approaching their respective primes in rival cities. The time to win is now. And with each missed game-clinching free throw or fourth-quarter collapse, the ceiling lowers. The players may not know it, but Riley sure does.
This is why coach Erik Spoelstra should be looking over his shoulder.
On second thought, considering the way Garnett and Taj Gibson have shaken Bosh's confidence, he should be worried about being traded even if the Heat win in June.
The Big Three have already been rebranded the Big Two, and since Bosh has grabbed 10 or more rebounds only once since late February, "Bosh as Miami's power forward" is on the verge of replacing "John Wayne as Genghis Kahn" as the worst casting decision of the past 60 years.
Nearly two years ago, everyone could see the new Heat were vulnerable in the middle. But with each loss, the flaw becomes more and more glaring. It may not be fair to put the grunge work all on Bosh, but hey, nobody made him get on that parade float. He asked for this level of scrutiny, and if Miami falls short again, he's likely the one Riley is going to use as bait to snag the post presence his team desperately needs. Maybe Riley will give Utah a call to try to pry away 2013 unrestricted free agent Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Maybe he will call New Jersey to check on Brook Lopez. Dare I suggest, he may call Orlando about Dwight Howard.
All of this, of course, after Riley fires his protégé, Spoelstra.
He might as well give Phil Jackson something else to think about besides New York.
At worst, Miami ends up with Nate McMillan, a coach with a proven record of getting a lot out of a little, or Mike D'Antoni, who would not only maximize the team's offense, but whose presence might entice free-agent-to-be Steve Nash to sign for pennies on the dollar.
Any moves would reflect nothing against Spoelstra or Bosh as people, but when assembling an All-Star lineup doesn't work, a team has to become something different.
Riley has been around too long, has seen and experienced too much to sit still and let this incarnation of the Miami Heat underachieve in 2013. He's going to make significant changes if they don't win a title. He's going to make changes even if they do win it all. So come June, when champagne is being poured, if it's not flowing into Riley's glass, Spoelstra and Bosh should have Two Men and a Truck on speed dial.