America’s Team is already taken, so it might be time to nominate the Heat as Adversity’s Team. Probably a better fit, anyway, considering the way most of America feels about Miami — and the way this team is using negativity as a springboard in these playoffs.
Miami on Thursday night turned the NBA Finals back in its favor and gave itself a fighting chance to become the first team in league history to win a championship after trailing in (as LeBron James might put it) not one, not two, but three playoff series.
The Heat offset an opening loss here in a dramatic, hang-on-for-dear-life 100-96 Game 2 triumph over Oklahoma City to level the series heading back to Miami for three consecutive games starting Sunday night. The Finals segues now from the Thunder dome to the bedlam of Bayside with Heat hopes immeasurably higher than just two days earlier.
Miami could win its second franchise championship on the home wood with a sweep of the next three games, but, after the first two here, a bet on that likelihood might not be fiscally wise.
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Miami frittered away as much as a 17-point lead to see OKC draw within three points with 1:47 left and within two in the final minute, but the Heat desperately held on.
Hey, anybody say this would be easy?
The Big 3 was just that for Miami as Chris Bosh started for the first time in exactly one month, after four games off the bench, and chipped in 16 points with a huge 15 rebounds. (Welcome back, Big Bird). LeBron was LeBron, with 32 points (though only six in the frantic fourth quarter). And a more aggressive (and accurate) Dwyane Wade rebounded from a poor Game 1 with 24 points.
The lesson here is that every result in a seven-game playoff series can refashion its entire context, turning gloom into glee or the opposite.
The greater lesson is that every time you are inclined to write off these Heaters they grab the pencil from you (the one with the big eraser) and take over the rewrite.
Something in this team’s DNA triggers when it is discounted, mocked or lambasted — when the autopsy is started before the body is even cold.
Nobody plays better put-upon. No team more than this one can process anger or doubt into high-octane fuel.
“When our backs are against the wall,” as James said, “we seem to respond. We enjoy that challenge.”
Of course the entire narrative changes into one of collapse and calamity if Miami did NOT hang on, but that’s the thing. Whether by rallying or hanging on, a four-point win is a four-point win.
The game ended with Thunder fans cat-calling the referees for perceived impartiality against their team. It was the sound of fans unaccustomed to losing at home, and unable to fathom theirs was not the best team this night.
The sound down in South Florida? It had to be equal parts jubilation and exhales of plain relief.
Heat fans should be used to the wild ride by now, though, right?
Remember when the Heat trailed the Pacers two games to one heading back to Indiana? After Dwyane Wade’s ugly sideline tirade against coach Erik Spoelstra made Miami seem like a team ripping at the seams? Winning and advancing ensued.
Remember when the Heat were pushed to the edge of elimination, trailing the Celtics three games to two heading back to Boston? And how panic and bitter disappointment roiled across South Florida? Winning and advancing ensued.
Now it’s the Finals. Higher stakes and earlier in the series, but the same story: The Heat quelling the anxiety back with an enormously essential, impressive victory.
Barely, in this case.
Miami led by as many as 17 and led by 55-43 at halftime after limiting the Thunder to 34 percent shooting early on. A scorching first quarter sparked the half, with Miami out to leads of 18-2 and 25-8, stunning the packed arena.
“If we’re going to win this game it’s going to be on the defensive end,” Wade had said at the half.
Instead they won this game with clutch playoffs in the chaotic final minute to avert what would have been — and at times seemed likely to be — one of the most notorious collapses in South Florida sports history.
Bosh’s dunk off a Wade assist with 53.8 seconds left was enormous. James’ rebound, wrapped up with both arms, sealed it with 7.1 seconds on the clock.
Credit Spoelstra as well for some of his adjustments from Game 1, because much of what went wrong Tuesday went right two nights later.
Miami was beaten up badly on the fast break in the opener, outscored 22-4, but Thursday it was a negligible 11-10 OKC edge as the Heat got back much better on defense.
Miami also enjoyed a hugely better presence in the paint after being denied access much of Game 1. Points in the paint swung in the Heat’s favor, 48-32.
The onus was on Wade entering this game, and he was equal to it.. He had shot under 50 percent in his past six playoff games and scored fewer than 20 in five of those, including Game1 here. Slow starts and lousy first halves had become a tattoo of his postseason. A volume of criticism normally reserved for LeBron fell upon him.
“You all need to get off Dwyane, man,” teammate Udonis Haslem had said, scolding media members in his defense. “We didn’t get here without him. Dwyane’s fine. He’s still our guy. Lay off Dwyane.”
Noted the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins — accurately: “The scary thing is he always bounces back.”.
The Heat has trailed in each of the past three playoff series and then won the next game.
But hanging on to win Thursday night after what nearly was a monumental collapse — that might have amounted to the biggest adversity of all to survive.