Heat coach Erik Spoelestra said something that was small and quiet but it distilled this thing to its essence Monday night as his slumping, angry, searching champions set out looking for answers and a needed victory.
It can be easy to lose sight of what he said. It can be easy to forget the fundamental lesson in it as Miami takes these occasional detours from excellence to fallibility that are the stuff of human nature, but, evidently, thoroughly unacceptable.
“We’re not above having to work for it,” Spoelstra reminded.
How much presumptuousness and gall does it take to think a third consecutive Heat championship — which would be the stuff of legends, of dynasties, of history — might happen without struggle or sweat? Without questions or doubt?
Monday’s 93-91 home victory over the Portland Trail Blazers led by LeBron James’ 32 points didn’t change anything about this ongoing narrative.
Neither did the seven losses in 11 previous games that turned up the angst and made Monday seem bigger than it was.
Miami squandered a 17-point lead Monday and barely hung on, winning on a late left-handed layup by James and then a last-second block by Chris Bosh.
“At the end of the day we played Miami Heat basketball, flying around defensively,” James said.
Now the imperative will magnify as it shifts quick to Wednesday’s game at conference-rival Indiana, but, again, win or lose, the truth about the Heat won’t change.
You judge this team in the postseason and only then.
You judge this team when all that matters is everything.
And you understand that the championship ring and golden trophy bear no inscription indicating how easy or hard the getting of it was. Only that you got it.
“We’re not above having to work for it.”
This has been the pattern, in case you haven’t noticed.
Even if it seemed in the delirium of the summer of 2010 that audacious Pat Riley had assembled something that would make the rest of the NBA meekly cower and curtsy to Miami’s omnipotence, you’d think we’d have adjusted to reality by now.
The first year of the Big 3 era ended in an NBA Finals fizzle that had the critics and cynics questioning everything about Riley’s grand plan.
The second year’s championship came only after Miami trailed in each of its last three playoff series, and needed a LeBron James miracle night to escape Boston — and shouts of “Failure!” — in the conference finals.
The third year’s championship required a seven-game death-match series vs. Indiana in the conference finals last year, and then a Ray Allen miracle-shot and rally to escape San Antonio in seven games to continue the reign.
Now it’s year four and you were expecting, what, a police escort to a three-peat? An unimpeded waltz or perhaps a samba?
All Monday’s victory did was make Tuesday’s flight to Indianapolis a little smoother, more enjoyable.
But make no mistake, it did do that.
Miami needed this.
The 4-7 funk coming into this game was the team’s worst extended lull of the Big 3 era, marked by careless, sloppy defense.
Spoelstra referred to a “major slippage” on the defensive end.
Players were angry and vocally so.
The phrase “at a loss” had taken on both a literal and figurative shade that cast gloomily over the team.
“We suck,” a frustrated Bosh had said after Saturday’s loss at New Orleans. “Lose, nobody is upset. Win, nobody is happy. There’s no passion. There’s nothing. We need that competitive drive back. We don’t have it.”
The dissatisfaction had not softened by Monday (although it surely took a respite as the team celebrated Bosh’s birthday with a circus-themed party on Sunday).
“We’re playing basketball we’re not comfortable playing,” said LeBron before Monday’s game. “We all need to be on the same page. I don’t know [why we aren’t]. If we all had the answers, we’d be better defensively.”
The Heat is not above placing Chinese fortune-cookie-style bon mots in each player’s locker before games. Monday’s read, ‘If It Is To Be, It Is Up To Me.’ James seemed to take that personally.
He led not so much with his game-high point total as simply by his presence.
See, Dwyane Wade, adding a tender ankle to his various ailments, missed his 19th game of the season Monday. LeBron, also with a sore ankle and also dealing with back issues, played as usual.
“There’s no time to take time off,” James said. “I’m active. I’m on the floor. It’s my obligation to make plays.”
He made enough of them Monday night to shape a victory that was important enough — needed enough — to inspire Spoelstra at one point to chest-bump James to celebrate a big basket.
It was a display of that missing passion of which Bosh had spoken.
“We needed some life, and showing emotion is part of it,” James said. “This game is too fun to not show it.”
Monday was fun. Isn’t it funny how winning almost always is?