The tightrope is ratcheted high as it can be now, stretched taut across what seems like a ravine far below, or an abyss. It is dizzying up here. The wind gusts and howls. It is cold. Those who step onto this thin cable, meaning to reach the glory on the other side, at least have the luxury of a safety net — well, all except one.
The Heat walks alone.
This is the one team that had better not fail, had better not fall.
This is the team with no net.
Miami in the NBA is the only team in American professional sports that must end its season as a champion — winning everything in its way — or see its sky fall and be lambasted, questioned and mocked from coast to coast.
“That’s the nature of the beast, just part of the world we live in around here,” as Heat star Dwyane Wade put it Wednesday. “It’s just different here.”
This is the unique burden on Miami as it hosts NBA Finals Game 1 here Thursday night against the San Antonio Spurs.
Championship, or bust.
Reign, or else.
You think that’s hyperbole?
Two years ago as the franchise’s Big 3 era launched, a team newly put together got all the way to the Finals before losing. To many, perhaps, that wasn’t so bad a result for the first year. Right?
Here is what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it Monday, looking back:
“A collective, massive failure.”
It would have been a massive failure times two a year ago had Miami not merely done the expected and won a championship.
And it will be a massive failure again, at least to many, if a repeat title is not accomplished this time — if LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh do anything but continue their claim to a modern basketball dynasty-in-progress.
LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers, in 2007, lost in the Finals to essentially this same Spurs team. LeBron was the rising young kid then vs. an in-his-prime veteran in San Antonio’s Tim Duncan. Now Duncan is in his career’s winter and James flexes in his full powers.
“I have something in me that they took in ’07,” James said Wednesday, of the Spurs. “They celebrated on our home floor. I won’t forget that.”
“LeBron seeks revenge” is an easy story line. The larger, more accurate one for Heat-Spurs is simply that LeBron must keep winning championships for a chance to end his career in higher regard than even Michael Jordan, and Miami must keep collecting titles to keep repelling the critics hungrily laying in wait to call this whole Big 3 thing a disappointment.
It was many years before his brilliant audaciousness made the Big 3 happen (inviting jealousy and scorn) that Heat president and architect Pat Riley coined the phrase, “There is winning, and there is misery.” Having LeBron on your roster doubles down on that either/or. You had better win.
This doesn’t seem entirely fair; it probably isn’t. But it’s also hard to label as unfair when Miami invited this onus upon itself the moment LeBron announced to the world he was taking his talents to South Beach. And later at the arena coronation when he described the Heat’s championship potential to a swooning crowd as “not one, not two, not three . ..” and kept going until the fan’s bedlam swallowed his words.
Another franchise might have sought to relieve the pressure on itself by denying the burden, or at least downplaying it.
Credit the Heat for doing the opposite.
Miami wears the bull’s-eye on it like a badge of honor.
Bring it on, is the swaggering mind-set.
“The pressure, the expectations, they never change — and we embrace that,” Spoelstra said. “We like the world we live in.”
While betting odds cast Miami as a heavy favorite in this series and a repeat title has seemed almost preordained for months, the coach likes to constantly remind that nothing is guaranteed. Last week he even said, “We’re not above a Game 7” — as if some might view the Heat even being pushed that hard as an indignity.
No, the Heat is not above a Game 7.
As long as it doesn’t lose.
Everybody else has a safety net, by which I mean reasonable excuses forming a soft landing should they fail. Look as Miami’s 2013 playoff opponents:
Milwaukee in the first round simply wasn’t good enough; nobody of a right mind gave the Bucks a real chance.
Chicago in the second round was missing superstar Derrick Rose and other key players to health issues.
Indiana in the recent Eastern Conference finals was a young team, led by 23-year-old Paul George, paying its necessary dues.
Now San Antonio enjoys the safety net of the older team that has already proved itself and had its run; to win again, playing with house money, would be a luxury.
Miami by contrast is so bereft of available excuses that even Wade’s sore knee and Bosh’s less-than-100 percent ankle don’t count as anything anybody wants to hear — not when Miami has the superhuman LeBron to make everything better.
Around here, all it takes is one loss, at any point in any series, to bring the national media critics back out from their hibernation.
The 3-3 Heat-Pacers series entering Game 7 was a festival of hand-wringing speculation over what might happen should Miami have lost that final game. Would Bosh be traded? Had Wade’s days of elite status passed him by for good? Would LeBron re-sign long-term with Miami when it seemed the Big 3 had shrunk to look like the Big 1?
Miami winning Game 7 was a cure-all and mute button for all the noise, but a temporary one, perhaps. Advancing to a third straight Finals offered not so much relief as a respite.
That Game 7 over the Pacers was one of the greatest big-stage performances in South Florida sports history.
It also was a mere warm-up act for what starts all over again here Thursday night for the Heat.
Toes on that tightrope.