The third quarter ended with LeBron James slamming the basketball onto the court in frustration.
It got worse for the Heat.
Miami would trail by eight points with less than three minutes to play, the home crowd numbed quiet, a return trip to Brooklyn looming, the playoff series tightening uncomfortably, the Nets’ cocky Paul Pierce grin-howling and nodding his head at a celebrating, fist-pumping visitors bench.
Then something happened here Wednesday night in the downtown bayside arena.
I don’t know if this qualified as a sporting miracle or not, but that surely would have won the vote of drained Heat fans as they emptied into the late night, shaking their heads in wonder, trying to fathom the finish they’d just seen.
“We have that ignite-ability,” explained coach Erik Spoelstra.
That’s a made-up word, but why not? This almost seemed a make-believe, too-good-to-be real ending.
Miami rallied from that late hole with a closing 14-3 run for a 96-94 triumph that eliminated Brooklyn in a 4-1 series and sends the Heat to the NBA’s Eastern conference finals (vs. Indiana or Washington) for the fourth consecutive season.
Champions happened, and so the Heat’s dream of a three-peat, a third consecutive league title, has moved a step closer.
Miami would get 73 points from its Big 3 of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and made 29 of 31 free throws, yet it took an astonishing sequence in the last few minutes to overcome a hot-shooting Joe Johnson and the veteran, no-quit Nets.
A LeBron three-pointer, Wade’s fadeaway jumper, LeBron blocking Johnson’s shot, then two James free throws. That made it seven consecutive Heat points. Miami now trailed 91-90. Less than a minute remained.
“You guys are built for this!” Spoelstra said to his men during a timeout, shouting over the now-sonic din.
Then Ray Allen, ageless assassin, hit a three for the lead. He’d been 0 for 6 on threes before then.
Mario Chalmers had sent him a pass that Spoelstra called “a corkscrew screwball.” Allen knocked it out of the park.
It wasn’t over.
Wade’s tight defense forced a Shaun Livingston miss, and Bosh got the rebound.
Allen hit two free throws to make it a 12-0 Heat run and four-point lead.
It still wasn’t over.
Johnson’s three-ball kept the Nets alive.
Brooklyn had the final possession for a potential tying or winning shot, but Allen and James combined to defensively strip the ball from Johnson as time expired and the sound in the arena was half-jubilation, half-relief.
The Heat would shoot only 43 percent and miss 20 of 29 three-pointers, but clutch shooting and torqued-up defensive tenacity in those final, frantic three minutes proved to be enough.
“It’s always been like that for us,” James said. “It’s never been easy for us.”
Miami is now 9-0 in the Big 3 era at home in games that could end a series, and 7-0 when up 3-1 in a series.
LeBron worked hard for his 29 points, hitting only 6-of-14 field goals. He had no dunks, a rarity, as the Nets denied him the run, but James bulled and bullied in enough for 17 free throws.
Wade played better, scoring 28 on 10-of-18 shooting, and giving Miami an early spark with an attacking mindset that led to eight free throws.
“I just took it upon myself to be very aggressive early on, knowing that was going to open the game up,” Wade said. “To be in this position four years in a row is the reason we came together.”
Afterward LeBron and Wade shared the postgame dais reserved for the game’s stars. Just like old times.
“Dwyane is a playoff warrior,” described Spoelstra, who tends to be a bit dramatic in his prose — but sometimes the drama is fitting. “Similar to what LeBron did the other night, he has a sense of what we needed and we as in absolute attack mode.”
Wade had averaged only a modest 16.6 points a game in this postseason entering Wednesday’s game. In the shadow of LeBron’s spectacular 49-point performance in Brooklyn on Monday night, there were renewed whispers whether Wade still had a breakout offensive game in him, at age 32, and coming off a season in which he’d battled various injuries.
Charles Barkley keeps yakking on TV that James is carrying too much “dead weight.” Was Wade now included?
“I felt like he was going to have one of those games tonight,” James said of his running mate. “He basically kept us afloat throughout our struggles.”
For Oklahoma City, superstar Kevin Durant had a bad game Tuesday night, shooting only 6 for 22, but second scorer Russell Westbrook picked him up with a 38-point night.
Was Wade still that for Miami? A No. 2 guy capable of taking over offensively and still being the star when needed? Or does James now enter games carrying that it’s me-or-bust weight?
Chance are Miami will need more from Wade moving forward, more offensive nights like this one, if the Heat is to get back to the Finals, let alone have a chance to three-peat.
The issue is bigger than this postseason, of course.
It’s about the future.
It’s about this summer, when James will decide whether to re-sign with Miami or move on in free agency.
Will he still see in Wade an elite-level, top-10 player and worthy sidekick? Or will he see an injury-marred, fading star?
Wednesday, we saw a Wade still closer to the former, still capable of excellence in spurts, if not always.
We have been here before. Seen this before.
When Wade is doubted, questioned, put in a position to prove he remains in his prime, albeit the far side of it, he does.
He has that reservoir.
His team has it, too. Because it takes more than talent to forge the miracle rally Miami did Wednesday night. First, it takes belief.
Nets coach Jason Kidd didn’t call the Heat by their city or nickname in his postgame news conference.
Kidd kept calling them “the world champions.”
He’d just been an eye-witness to why.