The Heat fast-bloomed into the biggest, most talked-about phenomenon in American sports all at once in the summer of 2010 and it was supposed to be so easy, remember? NBA pundits quickly predicted the team would break Chicago and Michael Jordan’s season record of 72 wins. Others fretted how Miami’s instant dominance had created a disparity that would be bad for the league. And LeBron James was merely voicing what plenty of fans felt when, at that arena celebration of the Big 3 coming together, he began counting championships to the delirious home crowd: “Not one, not two, not three.”
Didn’t he get up to six or seven before the cheering simply drowned him out?
We are all a little wiser, four years later.
Dwyane Wade, reflecting on the surreal journey last week, shook his head, half-smiled and said:
“Man, it’s hard to win a championship.”
That was even before the two straight home losses changed everything.
Now it has become impossible for the Heat to win another championship, according to basketball history. It has become too hard. Those same pundits are saying Miami is finished. ESPN in a poll asked America if the Heat had a good chance, a slim chance or no chance to beat San Antonio three games in a row, and the entire country agreed — every state including Florida.
That is what the Heat faces in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Sunday night at the Spurs’ arena in south-central Texas. San Antonio will arrive for a coronation or, as much a de-throning. Seeing Miami fall might delight Spurs fans as much as seeing their own team rise in the league’s first Finals rematch since 1998. The Heat needed a Game 6 miracle and a Game 7 triumph to prevail a year ago, and San Antonio tastes revenge.
No team in the league’s near-70-year history has been able to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit, but that is what Miami must now do to win a third straight championship in its fourth straight Finals since James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Wade.
Miami has spent four years being the favorite.
As Bosh said after the team’s Game 3 loss was described to him in a question as an avalanche:
“We’re supposed to be the avalanche.”
Instead, all at once, the favorite is the impossible underdog. You can get 9-1 longshot odds now on the Heat winning it all, while San Antonio is 1-18.
“I don’t care about odds,” Bosh said. “Odds are for people that can’t do it.”
For Miami, what will be brutally difficult in reality is simple at least in concept. All its players have to do is believe that “never been done” is not the same, not nearly the same, as “can’t be done.”
That is the life preserver one team clings to in this ocean of doubt.
Silence the Spurs crowd on Sunday, win back in Miami on Tuesday, and then the pressure and weight shift to San Antonio, even at home, for a Game 7.
I cannot recall the exact context but I remember Heat coach Erik Spoelstra saying at one point during this long postseason run, “Hope doesn’t win a lot of playoff games.”
Hope is all Miami has left.
Hope LeBron James and blind faith that a two-time defending champion can marshal its pedigree and pride, and somehow win three in a row against a hungry Spurs team that just whipped Miami down here twice in a row by combined 40 points.
So much onus is on Spoelstra to devise a game plan that is different and better, and somehow refutes the growing thought that San Antonio is so good it can beat Miami even when Miami plays well.
So much onus is on a once-proud defense to remind us how good it can be.
So much onus is on LeBron to take over, to carry this team even more than usual.
So much onus is on Wade and Bosh to help more than they have lately — especially Wade, who at 32 is seen as fading, tired and carrying the limp flag of an aging roster.
It’s more than all that, though. This is different.
Before the game plan or strategy or lineup changes or individual performances — before Sunday’s Game 5 even tips off — the three-game miracle Miami is after requires hope and belief as a starting point.
“I have belief in my guys,” Bosh said from that 3-1 crater. “If anybody can do it, it’s us. We’ve seen our fair share of adversity in everything, and this is adversity in all caps. So we just have to have confidence in ourselves. If a guy has a single bit of doubt then he shouldn’t be here.”
Overcoming adversity is the ultimate challenge. That is the psychological drive right now.
This is the team forged in a cauldron of hatred, resentment, jealousy and national mocking.
This is the team steeled by having trailed and rallied in eight of its playoff series over four years, twice being pushed to seven games.
This is the team that is more than being doubted now.
This is the team being dismissed.
Plenty of fans and the national media are ready to fast-forward. Ready to concede these Finals are over and look ahead to the summer. Will the Big 3 stay together or come apart in free agency? Might the Heat make a run at the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony as reported?
Lots of questions ahead but one still pertinent in the present tense:
Does the Heat have a miracle in it?
A three-peat championship would stand alone as sealing this team’s legacy and making it a modern dynasty. But a three-peat won on a never-before-done comeback would be the stuff of legend.
“We put ourselves in a position where it’s about making history,” as LeBron James said.
Now all they have to do is go make it.