Heat architect Pat Riley and club owner Micky Arison were sitting one row and a few seats from each other in the Spurs’ arena here, close enough to converse, if they chose, but far enough apart to be alone in their thoughts.
This was Wednesday afternoon as the Heat practiced for the next night’s game that would change everything. Few words passed between the men who run Miami’s NBA team as the sneakers squeaked and the basketballs thumped. What else could be said right then when everything was so stark and plain?
All that they had dreamed and made real was teetering.
You imagine how the next game will turn out, but you can never be sure how much of what your mind sees is colored by wishful thinking. Or desperation.
Riley and Arison could not have imagined Game 4 any better.
Neither could Heat fans, who felt the anvil on their chest lift.
It wasn’t just that Miami won 109-93 to even the NBA Finals entering Sunday’s Game 5 right back here.
It was how.
No. It was WHO.
You remember that surreal night in downtown Miami, in the bayside arena, when we celebrated? It was just after LeBron James had made The Decision, and now Dwyane Wade and our community ceremonially welcomed LeBron and Chris Bosh.
The Big 3 was born.
The rest of America hated that celebration. They were jealous; they thought us entitled, presumptuous. But there haven’t been a lot of occasions that lifted South Florida higher. Besides, we didn’t care what America thought. The rest of the country wasn’t invited. This was a private party.
Fans have invested so much emotion and hope into the Big 3 in the three years since. We rallied behind them when the haters piled on. We suffered when they fell short that first year. We swooned at a championship parade in Year 2.
Lately the doubts had crept in.
The Big 3 seemed diminished, the fabric fraying.
TRIO WAS STRUGGLING
LeBron had had three straight subpar Finals games offensively. He seemed scattered. Some questioned his heart, his mental toughness. We couldn’t but wonder anew if this was a man committed to Miami beyond next season.
Wade was a shell of himself, his bruised right knee not right, his burst gone. He couldn’t buy a 20-point game. An ESPN.com analysis earlier this week made the case for benching him. For benching Dwyane Wade!
Bosh was in one of those funks where he disappears far from the basket, seems detached. After Miami lost Game 1 in these Finals a “trade Bosh” storyline bloomed in the media (and surely among some fans).
If Miami’s three stars struggled again Thursday night the Heat would fall behind 3-1, a deficit from which no team has recovered to win a championship. The club-record 66 season wins and sublime 27-game winning streak would have started circling the drain, rendered poor consolation by anything but a repeat title.
Don’t you think Riley and Arison felt those darkest thoughts creeping in?
Then everything changed.
“It was on our shoulders,” LeBron said.
The Big 3 – individually and as a trio – were once again everything Miami dreamed they would be when Miami celebrated their coming together that night three years ago.
LeBron, flexing talent and power, pouring in 33 points with 11 rebounds, was the MVP, simply the best there is.
Wade found his time machine; he was “the ’06 Flash again,” as LeBron put it. He scored 32 and his defense, including six steals, was magnificent.
Bosh, playing a true center because of a smaller lineup, scored 20 with 13 rebounds, once more the All-Star-caliber “Big Third,” just like on the grand blueprint.
A WADE FLASHBACK
Wade’s show might have been the biggest and most redeeming of all. Said LeBron of is mate: “No matter how great you are, no matter what you rèsumè is, to have a game like this let’s you know that you’re still one bad ” He stopped himself. “You know the next two words. I can’t say them. My kids might be watching.”
Wade couldn’t resist a bit of well-earned chest-thumping after the game. He quickly posted on Instagram of photo of himself dunking in the game. The caption he wrote read: “I was born to make statements, not excuses.”
The Big 3 had averaged 43 points the first three games of the Finals, and had 85 this night – a collective statement. The rising up of all three men was faith restoring, a reminder they have it in them, and an indication they can summon magic when it is absolutely necessary.
Game 4 was the Big 3 finding another gear. It was fourth. It was fifth. It might have been sixth.
Now, even a loss Sunday would still leave Miami two home games to make amends. Didn’t Thursday night convince you that winning those two would be closer to likely than just possible?
The team follows its leaders. The word is resilience.
“With us we’ve always been under that microscope, so it’s always about how you respond,” Bosh said. “Ever since we’ve gotten together, we’ve had to respond to adversity. When things get rough, that’s when we pull together. We just rely on each and other and really pick it up.”
Miami has not lost back-to-back games since early January and is now 6-0 after losses in this postseason, and by an average margin of 17 points.
You push this team and it pushes back. Harder.
You doubt this team, it calls you out as a fool.
You begin to wonder about this team, or its Big 3, and they remind you who they are, and what they are: