We are living, at least until Thursday night, in Panic City.
The Miami Heat is on the brink.
Whether it’s the brink of resuscitation, freefall or makeover — we shall find out at the conclusion of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat and its ballyhooed Big 3 trails Boston and its elderly Big 3 3-2. Boston is one game from a return to the NBA Finals. The Heat must win two in a row to have a chance at starting that promised ring collection.
Celtics fans in Boston are licking their chops, ready to eat Heat CHOW-dah.
Fans in Miami are flummoxed, disappointed, really irate.
They are calling in sick, suffering from insomnia, driving with even more road rage than usual. It’s 91 degrees here and mosquitoes are swarming like so many Boston defenders named Keyon Dooling and Marquis Daniels. Heat fans are white hot.
“Spo must go!” is the most common rant, as criticism of Miami’s young coach, Erik Spoelstra, reaches the boiling point.
“Trade Dwyane Wade and sign Dwight Howard!” demand those who just weeks ago were proud to say they lived in Wade County.
“LeBron is LeGhost when it counts most!” is the refrain from 2011 about how LeBron James turns deferential in the closing minute.
What was supposed to be a championship run has turned into a stumble. But the Heat’s ordeal is a fascinating one. The ancient Greek dramatists would have loved this material. As the playoffs lurch from ecstasy to agony, we have a jumbotron window on “the human condition,” as Spoelstra would put it. (If he does get fired, he would be perfect for giving self-help talks.)
The last time this Heat team faced elimination it unraveled against the Dallas Mavericks in Miami during Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals. James, the most dynamically imposing athlete in the league, treated the ball like a hot potato.
It gets worse: Chris Bosh fainted afterward on his way to the locker room.
Soft. Chokers. Superstars do not make a team, scolded Heat detractors who took glee in James’ failure.
But Heat players and Spoelstra like to say they perform best when their backs are against the wall. Right now, their backs are against the wall in one of those mirrored funhouses, where everything is distorted. Kevin Garnett is 10 feet tall. Ray Allen is swishing 40-foot shots. Paul Pierce is faking players out of their sneakers. Rajon Rondo has eyes in the back of his head.
The Heat has more firepower, more talent, but gets outwitted by the Celtics at critical junctures. It outrebounded the Celtics in Game 5, limited Pierce, Allen and Rondo to 24 percent shooting, but still lost 94-90. In Game 4, it allowed the Celtics — the Celtics, who would have trouble scoring against the Washington Generals — to score 61 points in the first half. In the last five minutes of games, the Celtics are shooting better and in the last 24 seconds of these playoffs, the Heat is 0 for 7 on game-winning or tying shots.
The Heat desperately needs more defensive stops. In fact, Miami is too dependent on them to get its offense clicking. When Wade and James are in sync, it’s poetry in motion. When they are not, it’s messy. It’s one-on-one playground basketball.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have a game plan, a half-court offense, defensive stratagems and creative ideas in the huddle.
“We know who we are, we are who we are and we’re not going to change,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “We didn’t play well Tuesday night, but we rarely go away. Our guys do believe and they execute down the stretch.”
In the fourth quarter Tuesday, the Heat matched the Celtics, but it was the Celtics who made the timely plays.
“I thought it came down to loose balls,” Wade said. “I blocked a shot and Rondo punched it out to the corner and [Mickael] Pietrus sinks a three. It took the air out of us.”
The Heat can’t blame leprechaun luck. The Celtics are the ones who should be having senior moments, but it’s the Heat that tends to blank out.
Spoelstra is taking the heat. He’s not as good a coach as Rivers, but just 13 years ago he was a game film caveman. There’s nothing horribly wrong with Spoelstra, and it’s too easy to make him the scapegoat. Pat Riley is a constant presence, as he was Wednesday at practice, where he sat down for a talk with Udonis Haslem.
Yes, Spoelstra’s New Age mantras about “the journey” and “trust” and “purity” get tiresome. He has to come up with something more constructive than “stay the course” during timeouts. Pro athletes need a coach, not a guru. But that’s the way he communicates, and give him credit for being effective with a tinderbox of players that could have blown up in his face.
He made strange decisions in Game 5, such as keeping Joel Anthony and Bosh on the bench in the fourth quarter as KG went Godzilla in the post. Saying it wouldn’t have been “fair” to put Bosh back toward the end while Bosh was practically begging to go in was a bizarre statement.
So should the Heat lose the series, Spo might be the first to go. The roster might get ripped apart. The experiment might be a bust.
Yet, think about this rationally. Riley has few options in terms of cash, free agents and a No. 27 draft pick. He’s very loyal. He’s a contrarian. His ego is large enough that he would hate to raise a white flag. He has been aware from the outset that the Heat lacks a true center and an elite point guard. He could maintain this cast and keep tinkering. He could pull a rabbit out of his hat — or a 7-footer.
The Heat has won major road games before. If Wade finds his rhythm, James gets help from “the others” and Miami wins the hustle plays, this team could advance to the NBA Finals and prove too experienced for the Thunder.
The players are not panicking. And until someone does an autopsy they are not worried about the size of their hearts.
“I haven’t seen no one’s heart out there,” Wade said. “I have a heart, but it’s covered so who would know?
“The playoffs are the best time of year and the most painful. That’s what gets you to the gym every day. I’m only playing for championships, man, and I don’t think anyone’s expectations are higher than my own.”
Game 6 in Boston is bigger than Game 6 of the 2011 Finals because a loss would mean regression, and after the setup season, this was the no-excuses season.
Pressure? Pile it on, Wade said. He’s not living in Panic City.
“You know those noise cancellation headphones? We’ve got to put on those headphones,” he said. “If we listened to all the noise we’d be a nervous wreck.”
Let those who watch the game do the second-guessing and hand-wringing. Let Wade play it.