How thoroughly bizarre. We are speaking of a Heat team that won a club-record 66 games, that won 27 in a row at one point, that features the best player in the world, and that is close now to winning a second consecutive championship and being vaulted and exalted among the greatest teams of all time.
Yet this is the question being asked of Miami entering Sunday’s Game 5 of an even NBA Finals here, and being asked with all sincerity:
“Can they win two in a row?”
Not two titles in a row two GAMES in a row.
It is the most modest of little winning streaks, this. Two in a row might thrill a Dolphins fan and be parade-worthy to a Marlins fan, but asking Heat players if they can win two in a row should be like asking Miguel Cabrera if he can make contact or Tom Brady if he knows how to take a snap from center.
The Heat is so good it win on off-days. It win two in a row sleepwalking. A two-game streak to the Heat is a like a penny on the ground to Bill Gates.
Now it is the Holy Grail.
It has become maddeningly elusive and it is what separates Miami from being champions again.
“It’s not as if we’ve never won two in a row,” coach Erik Spoelstra all but scoffed Saturday.
Not lately, though.
“It’s time,” LeBron James declared. “We’re well overdue and it’s time to win consecutive games. Enough is enough.”
Miami last won two in a row in a playoff series a full month ago, vs. Chicago. The two series since have seen the Heat play 11 games in a row without back-to-back wins. They are on an 0-5 run after victories. It is what stretched the Indiana series to the full seven games. And it is what could do the same in these Finals vs. San Antonio unless Miami finds a way to win Game 5 Sunday.
If the Heat doesn’t make it two in a row Sunday, it would then need to win two in a row in Games 6 and 7 back in Miami. The team WILL win two in a row at one point again this postseason, or it will be what haunts players’ dreams.
There is no explaining it, really.
“No excuses why. It just happened,” said Dwyane Wade, prior to Saturday’s practice. “Now we know if we don’t win two [in a row], we won’t win the championship. I wasn’t that smart in school, but I do know that. We always respond to a challenge. This our challenge now.”
Some of it is human nature. You naturally let down slightly after a win and bring more desperation after a loss. Miami — 6-0 after losses in this postseason — has been an example on both ends.
Your desperation and resulting high energy after a loss is real.
After a win you must try to manufacture it. Talk yourself into it, as what LeBron said Saturday, “We have to play with the same sense of urgency as if we were down.”
That urgency — the real, organic variety — is what allowed Miami to rebound so emphatically from the Game 3 loss that Spoelstra said left the team “disgusted and embarrassed.” The gut-level desire to erase an embarrassment is something for which there is no substitute coming off a win. The Heat entered Thursday’s Game 4 with what Wade called “nervous energy” — the good kind of fear, the kind that becomes fuel.
It inspired an 85-point combined effort by the Big 3, a collective show that Wade said “was why we came together.”
LeBron used the last game to remind us again how different he is from the 2011 LeBron who seemed so unsure of himself in the Finals loss to Dallas. He was different then, but so was his role. The team is his now.
“It’s maturity. If guys are going to believe in me, I can’t have doubts,” James said of the difference. Two years ago he was a passenger here; now, he steers. “I got that from my teammates kind of giving me the keys,” he said. “You have to go through the pain to get to the highest level.”
James marshaled all of that sense of responsibility to be the man who leads to do what he did in Game 4, scoring 33 points with 11 rebounds.
Wade dug to more intensely personal places to have the game he did, with 32 points and six steals, his best showing of the postseason by a lot. He is 31 now. Many have begun to question if he is getting past his prime. Thursday, he answered.
“I was the Dwyane Wade my fans have become accustomed to,” he said Saturday, and it ain’t braggin’ if it’s fact. “It was good to see myself again on the court.”
Add Chris Bosh’s 20 points and 13 rebounds in Game 4 and you had a tour de force by the Big 3 — all of it driven by the desperation that coming off a loss uniquely brings in a seven-game series.
Now the driving incentive is what?
To a team as accomplished as Miami, a reigning champion with such earned swagger, going this long without consecutive wins has festered into its own little embarrassment, a bit of an indignity.
The Heat won the previous game because it felt it had to. Maybe Sunday is more about finally winning a second in a row simply to show it can.
As LeBron put it, “Enough is enough.”