Pat Riley knew this moment would come — the moment when the basketball world would be watching LeBron James in the NBA Finals and, remembering back to last year, wondering if the Heat’s star player could deliver.
“We all know what this team is capable of doing,” Riley said during his preseason news conference. “We are contenders, I believe that, and that’s all we are.
“There’s no sense in putting extra pressure on yourself. But when you get to the moment of truth, you’ve got to be relaxed.”
The moment is here. LeBron James’ moment of truth is Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
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Last year, James and the Heat failed in that moment.
Up 2-1 in the series and with 10 minutes remaining of Game 4, the Heat was on the verge of breaking open the 2011 Finals. Miami led the Dallas Mavericks by nine points. What happened after that has haunted the Heat ever since.
To put it bluntly, James and the Heat collapsed.
The Heat lost Game 4, outscored by the Mavericks 21-9 in the closing 10 minutes, and then lost its next two games, including Game 6 at home.
“It stuck with us all the way to this day,” James said on Monday.
And now another Game 4.
Again, the Heat leads the Finals 2-1 and, once again, the Heat can take a commanding lead in the series with a victory. For James and his teammates, the comparisons of last season’s Finals and the current series against the Oklahoma City Thunder end there.
“We’re a totally different team than we were last year when we were up 2-1,” James said. “We’re a totally different team. We understand what it takes to win and we’ve used [last year] as motivation and will continue to use that motivation.”
Dwyane Wade said another season together as a team has made all the difference. Looking back to Game 4 in 2011, Wade said “being a new group, a new unit in that situation for the first time, we tried to do what we thought was right, but a lot of it was forced.”
Wade pointed to Game 3 on Sunday as proof of a different team. Wade intimated that the Heat likely would have lost that game to the Mavericks in 2011. Despite shooting 37 percent in the game and committing eight turnovers in the final quarter, the Heat defeated the Thunder 91-85.
“We kept believing in each other,” Wade said.
James has played at a historic level through the first three games of the Finals. He’s averaging over 30 points and 10 rebounds. You have to go back to 1969 (John Havlicek, Boston Celtics) to find a non-center who put up those numbers in a Finals. Still, the memory of last year is hard to shake.
James attempted just one shot in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Mavericks. He failed to score in the period and his confounding timidity in crunch time carried over into Game 5. In that game, he had just two points.
“Obviously, up until the Finals last year he was having an amazing playoffs,” Wade said. “He had a game where he struggled and he kind of let that get into his mind a little bit and he was thinking too much.”
James has showed no signs of regressing into the form in which he found himself during last season’s Finals. He’s averaging seven points in fourth quarters through the first three games against the Thunder. On Sunday in Game 3, James made 4 of 5 free throws in the final period and outscored Thunder star Kevin Durant 8-4 in the quarter.
“He’s just a totally different player,” Wade said.
Unlike last year, the Heat is on its home court on Tuesday for the pivotal game. It’s a major difference. The Heat is 9-2 at home during the postseason and wants desperately to close out the series at AmericanAirlines Arena to avoid going back to Oklahoma City for the final two games of the series.
“Last year is last year and we’re not going into a Game 4 on someone else’s floor,” James said. “We’re going into a Game 4 on our floor with a lot of experience in this type of situation. We’ll be ready. We love the challenge.”