Allusions to heavyweight boxing and prizefights are all around the Heat in these NBA Finals, and all of them seemed more fitting than ever as midnight neared Tuesday and Miami stood bruised, exhausted but tall over a staggered opponent.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, a huge boxing fan, especially of Manny Pacquiao, spoke before Game 4 of “throwing our best punches” and afterward of “getting knocked down” only to rise again. Stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do a pantomime before games, after introductions and just before taking the floor, feigning punches at one another.
Well, this was a championship fight and it felt like all the punches that mattered landed Tuesday night for the Heat — the team that keeps getting back up.
It was the Oklahoma City Thunder on the canvas when it ended, not knocked out — not quite — but surely being counted out now.
The Heat’s 104-98 triumph fashioned a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series after a third straight Finals victory by Miami, and NBA history suggests this thing is effectively over now, even if neither team would ever say it.
A team leading by 3-1 in the Finals has never failed to win the championship. Not once. Meaning Miami is either poised to celebrate its second franchise championship, perhaps as soon as Game 5 right back here Thursday night, or at risk of historic ignominy — depending on one’s degree of optimism and faith.
This Heat team has earned that.
Miami needed to overcome a 43-point night by OKC’s Russell Westbrook, but did thanks mostly to three players who also were able to overcome:
James led the team with 26 points but played the boxer heroically rising from a knockdown too close to literally for Miami’s liking, leaving with leg cramps with 5:15 to play, reentering 70 seconds later, but out again in the final, crucial minute. He managed, limping, to hit a big 3-point shot before leaving for good, “Willing his body,” as Spoelstra put it.
“Be exhausted!” James had told his teammates before the game, then led by example.
Wade toughed out 25 points despite dealing with some turmoil in his personal life earlier Tuesday, as his attorneys asked a Chicago judge to suspend his ex-wife’s visitation rights with their two young sons after a recent delay in returning the boys to his custody led to her arrest.
Mario Chalmers, starting point guard but a role player on this team, burst from the shadows to score a huge 25 points — unexpected, and on this night necessary. He’d been in a 2-for-18 shooting slump and a minimal factor in the Finals before Tuesday night’s heroics.
“He was due for a big game and he came through for us,” Wade shouted through the arena’s jubilant din moments after the victory.
“I’ve always been a person to step up in big moments,” if Chalmers did say so himself.
Tuesday didn’t settle anything or end anything, but as a symbol, the result was noisy as a cymbal.
It proved something, at least to Heat players themselves.
The victory was an indication that the Heat has moved on from last year, that the Heat is better now. That, this time, things are different.
A year ago, Miami also enjoyed a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals but LeBron and this team collapsed then. Hard. It all began in Game 4, at THIS point. Now, a year wiser, this team rose up and effectively declared, “Not again.”
All through the playoffs whose crescendo is near, Heat players have said things were different this time. But every claim needs a litmus test, and this was it for Miami.
History repeating with another Game 4 loss would have let all of the unwelcome old ghosts back in, rattling chains, summoning sour memories, inviting doubt.
Every feel-good moment in a series like this can be fleeting, of course, pending the next result. For now, though, the Heat is in control. Command.
For now, the ghosts are gone, and last year is ceremonially past.
Can you imagine Miami losing three games in a row now?
Tuesday night meant the Heat has a chance to avoid a return trip to Oklahoma City and win a championship on its home floor for the first time, after the 2006 championship, remember, was clinched at Dallas.
This team is the fighter that keeps getting knocked down but won’t STAY down. Miami is poised now to become the first team in NBA history to win a championship after trailing in games in three different playoff series.
Tuesday demanded a comeback as well, after OKC raced to what seemed a commanding 33-19 lead after the first quarter, only to see the game come down to the final frantic minute.
Everything is one victory away now. Forty-eight basketball minutes away.
Everything — the vindication of LeBron, the redemption of the Heat, the affirmation of Pat Riley’s grand plan for his Big 3 — is close at hand.
That’s because Tuesday night was everything in this series.
Two heavyweights trading punches.
One left standing.