Commentary

Stinging defeat for Heat 'Big Three'

Celtics leave Heat stunned, on brink of elimination with Game 5 ECF loss

Originally Published: June 6, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- When it comes to the Miami Heat, overreaction is the only reaction, both in good times and in bad.

LeBron James can vary from the greatest player to wear a jersey to the most frustrating talent in league history. Erik Spoelstra constantly shifts from underrated tactician and manager of superstars to overwhelmed apprentice with no feel for the game. Dwyane Wade teeters between the league's best shooting guard and a damaged player past his prime. And as a whole, the Heat are generally viewed as the league's greatest team or its greatest disappointment, and rarely, if ever, in between.

With that in mind, and with no disrespect to the resilient Boston Celtics who might only be fully appreciated whenever this improbable run of theirs comes to an end, Tuesday's Game 5 loss to Boston is the worst loss the Big Three version of the Heat have experienced. That's not an overreaction.

Yes, it was worse than the Game 2 loss to the Mavericks in last year's NBA Finals, in which the Heat blew a late 15-point lead. That Mavericks team was deeper and more talented than this version of the Celtics, and Dallas' best player was in the midst of one of the best postseason runs the NBA has ever seen.

[+] EnlargeWade/James
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireDwyane Wade and LeBron James did not have enough to overcome Boston in Game 5.
And this Heat team, while incomplete because Chris Bosh was playing for the first time in 10 games and saw only 14 minutes, has had a full year to, presumably, learn how to avoid disappointments such as these.

Instead, what you saw was James shying away from the bigger moments in another high-stress game. (James' close-out performances against the Celtics and Bulls in last year's playoffs did not carry the same kind of pressure as Tuesday's series-changing game did, simply because the Heat had the luxury of the 3-1 lead in those other series.)

What you saw was a perfectly capable group of supporting players let James down for much of the first 40 minutes, missing open shots and losing enough battles for loose balls to keep the game close and create those tense final minutes.

What you saw was Spoelstra being outmatched by Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who relied heavily on his starters despite their age and threw off the Heat offense by constantly changing defenses, not just from man to zone, but different principles within those defenses.

Spoelstra, meanwhile, started a third different center in as many games, seemed to have no answer to the Celtics' defense that rendered the Heat's offense stagnant, and tinkered with his lineups to the point that he was playing James Jones, a player he barely trusted throughout the entire regular season, for eight minutes in the fourth quarter of the most important game of the season.

It was everything Heat detractors say is wrong with this team wrapped up in one 48-minute damning piece of evidence. It would be considered shocking if we hadn't seen it so many times already.

When the Heat took a 13-point lead in the second quarter, on a James 3-pointer, the opportunity was there to build a daunting lead, the way the Celtics did on their home court in Games 3 and 4.

Instead, with a combination of passive play and switching defenses from the Celtics, the Heat continued to take and miss long or difficult shots.

In a 7:37-span in the second quarter that saw the Celtics shrink the Heat lead to two points, the Heat took six 3-pointers and another 20-foot shot from Bosh, committed four turnovers and took three foul shots, one of them a result of a Boston defensive three-second violation.

In the second quarter, when the Heat could've run away from a Celtics team that shot 33.3 percent for the first half, James was 4-of-7 from the field for 11 points. The rest of the Heat were 1-of-15 for seven points.

That includes 0-of-4 for a scoreless Wade in the period, and a collective 0-of-6 from 3-point range from everyone not named LeBron.

"I think the zone might have given us a little trouble," Heat guard Mario Chalmers said. "I think for the most part we got away from what we do best; that's getting into transition and getting stops.

"We got going and then we let up. That's something we can't do."

Wasn't this why James escaped Cleveland, to not be required to do all the heavy lifting against a still-intimidating Celtics defense?

Then again, James returned the favor in the final eight minutes of the game.

After Boston ended the third quarter on an 11-0 run that put the Celtics ahead 65-60, the nervous energy in AmericanAirlines Arena was palpable.

The gasps after every Celtics shot were almost as loud as the cheers for any Heat make.

There couldn't have been much confidence in a team showing little resolve and a superstar with a history of succumbing to the tension of the moment.

James tried to settle their fear by scoring seven points in the first 3:50 of the fourth quarter, including a deep 3-pointer that gave the Heat its lead back.

But as the game progressed, James played his far too familiar game of keep-away -- as in, "keep me away from the ball" -- to the point that he managed just four shots for the final 8:10 of the game. One of those was a contested 3-pointer, and another was a layup the Celtics practically granted him with Boston leading by four with less than 10 seconds remaining.

The most meaningful play James had in that stretch was when he drew a triple team that eventually led to Chalmers hitting a 3-pointer to give the Heat an 83-82 lead.

James' final stat line remained impressive, with 30 points and 13 rebounds in 45 minutes. And it's hardly his fault that his teammates were missing a good amount of open shots in the game's first 40 minutes.

But here's the question: Which is worse, LeBron's teammates essentially letting him down for the first three quarters of the game, or LeBron letting his teammates down in the game's most critical minutes?

The actual answer doesn't truly matter. The fact that both of those elements continue to plague the Heat at crucial times two seasons into their Big Three era is enough to make this group difficult to trust moving forward, assuming there's much further to move.

Yet, the man that will be getting the most heat of them all might be Spoelstra, in part because he's an easy target as a relatively inexperienced coach, but also because even superstars like James and Wade require direction to defeat a team Shane Battier called the "smartest" in the league.

Spoelstra had the guts to play Bosh in this critical game, but didn't have enough trust to play him in the fourth quarter.

"I didn't think it would necessarily be fair to throw him in with three minutes to go," Spoelstra said of Bosh. "I didn't see a great deal of rust. I think his energy, everything, was good."

And while Rivers' Celtics are finding ways to limit two of the game's best attackers, Spoelstra has yet to devise a way to keep Garnett from getting lob pass after lob pass near the basket. Even the threat of the lob pass to Garnett continuously gets the Celtics easy looks.

The combination of it all makes Miami's failure Tuesday the worst in two years. At least last season, the Heat faltered in the final round. In this no-excuse, championship-or-bust season, the Heat crashed before ever reaching the last round.

Even with all that, though, the Heat remain in position to force everyone to take back every negative comment ever made about them.

If the Heat find some miraculous way to win in Boston -- a place the franchise has lost 14 of its past 15 games -- then recover and win a Game 7 at home to reach the NBA Finals, it will turn the most disappointing loss into a distant memory, replacing it with the most impressive display of resiliency they've ever demonstrated.

Short of that, Tuesday's Game 5 loss will stand as the biggest letdown -- one that might even spark some serious changes in the near future.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.