Can Heat keep cool under pressure?
Despite excelling when going gets tough, Miami must avoid harder path in Finals
In only two weeks the Miami Heat's season has swung from adversity to opportunity. They're no longer missing a key player because of injury and they no longer have the threat of elimination pointing in their face like the tip of a bayonet. Their opponent is formidable, but their scenario is simple: win three home games to become NBA champions. They're serving for the match.
And that could be the their biggest issue.
The Heat used to have a reputation as front-runners, but that's gone the way of Udonis Haslem's braids. This Heat squad seems to be at its best when the conditions are the worst. When it held an 11-point lead in the third quarter and a chance to sweep the New York Knicks in the first round, the Heat let it slip away and bought themselves an extra day of work. But when they fell behind to the Indiana Pacers 2-1 in the second round, they didn't lose a game the rest of the series. When they couldn't lose either of the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, they didn't. The most recent example: their bounce back in Game 2 of the NBA Finals after dropping the opener to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"We're at our best when we play like a desperate team," Haslem said. "Why is that? It's a tough question. What I will say is, as a group, we understand that now. So there's no reason not to play desperate every game. There's no excuse. ... We play desperate, I think we have our best chance of winning."
In this case, "we" and "the Miami Heat" can be considered euphemisms for "LeBron James." While the team as a whole has had great performances sprinkled throughout the playoffs, clearly James' two superlative games -- the only two times he has reached the 40-point level -- came when the consequences were greatest: Game 4 in Indiana and Game 6 in Boston.
In that case, the question of why they're at their best when behind in the series is best posed to LeBron.
"I don't know," he replied. "I guess when we're behind and when we're down, that's the best time people like to see us at. People like to see us when we're behind and see how we're going to react or make adjustments going into the next game."
A curious response. He's right in that interest spikes when polarizing teams such as the Heat and the Lakers are on the verge of losing a series. But does it really take the prospect of people tuning in with the hope that they fail to force the Heat to prove them wrong?
There never has been a star as self-conscious as LeBron. It's as if he would rather convene a focus group than a huddle during timeouts. Sometimes I'm convinced he can hear the keyboards clacking away on press row when he steps to the free throw line at the end of games and he wonders what's being written about him. Saturday, he referenced the high TV viewership of these Finals, saying, "I've seen some of the ratings, so that shows the excitement around the game of basketball, shows the excitement around the two teams, and what these two teams have to offer."
Wasn't he supposed to be shutting off the outside world and entering a mental bunker for these playoffs? Who pays attention to the TV ratings in the middle of a series?
But who can uncork a 40-point, 18-rebound, nine-assist game against the Pacers with Chris Bosh out, the Heat wobbling and opposing benchwarmers disrespecting him? Or score 45 points on a masterful 19-for-26 shooting night (and grab 15 rebounds to boot) with the season on the brink in a hostile TD Garden?
Only LeBron (now that Wilt Chamberlain is no longer with us).
No one -- not even video game characters -- can sustain that invincible-mode level of play. Maybe that's why he saves it for emergencies.
But how's this for a crisis scenario? Give the Thunder a game and the Heat would have to win another game as a visitor in Oklahoma City -- something that just happened for the first time in the playoffs. Give the Thunder a chance and the Heat could give them the series. Give them that championship experience -- thus removing the one thing the Thunder's star players lack -- and LeBron's Heat could be condemned to spend the next few years playing the role of Jerry West's Lakers to Bill Russell's Celtics.
"We don't want to be behind," James said. "We're not trying to get down in the series, we can tell you that. But it's good to see that we can come back after a little adversity, a little down."
Maybe they can feel desperate to avoid losses just because of everything a loss brings about. Heat losses aren't merely judged on their effect on their series; they are dissected for what they mean for LeBron's legacy, Erik Spoelstra's future and the worth of this super-team concept.
There were moments in the aftermath of Game 1 and the practice day that followed that the Heat players seemed tired of the burden (albeit self-imposed) of being THE HEAT. A victory in Game 2, a day's break from the media and a return home did wonders for their attitudes.
They're even speaking with a more unified voice. Players are echoing Spoelstra, like in this Dwyane Wade comment: "Each game is going to come down to, as coach continues to tell us, come down to four or five plays."
The Thunder have a similar attitude, recognizing that their effort might be the only obstacle to victory. They can use their turnaround in the Western Conference finals as a reference. They found their edge in Game 3 and didn't lose it. But now they face a team with a one-two punch that can match Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, so it's more a matter of details.
"Whatever team is going to play harder and dive for the loose balls, those 50-50 plays and take charges, small things are going to win the game," the Thunder's James Harden said.
The Heat's Bosh had what almost sounded like a request.
"I'd like to stay ahead from now on," Bosh said. "I don't think it's a question of talent with this team, it's a question of effort. As long as we bring the effort and the determination and we play in that desperate form, we're really tough to beat. We can't let our guard down because we're at home. We've got to turn it up another notch. We have to keep getting better as we get deeper into this series."
The Heat realize they have their hands full with the Thunder. And their habits might be just as big a challenge. It's that tendency to play cool, to act as if victories should be ceded to them that keeps popping up whenever they have the option of losing. On its surface, Sunday's Game 3, with as many as four remaining afterward, doesn't feel like a moment of truth. But it will reveal the veracity of the Heat's words, and whether they've really learned to avoid their perils of prosperity.