Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Heat must rise above latest challenge in Game 7 or face calamity

The champions are staggered now, stunned by a blow that buckled the knees. The heaviest favorites in American sports are hurt. Miami’s dream of a repeat NBA championship took a hard punch here Saturday night, and the answer to the only question that matters now must wait until Monday night.

How will the Heat respond?

Will a record-breaking season that began with audacious talk of a dynasty come crashing? Or is this just the latest challenge the Heat will prove bigger than?

South Florida holds its breath and places shaken faith in the latter as a great Heat-Pacers series gets greater still, careening now to an ultimate Eastern Conference finals Game 7 back in Miami on Monday — winner-take-all for a spot in the NBA Finals versus a waiting San Antonio.

Isn’t this fun?

OK, maybe “fun” isn’t exactly the word most Heat fans would use today, but what an exhilarating ride this series has been!

Sports doesn’t get any better than Game 7’s, and it’s all the more compelling when one includes a reigning champion fighting for, well … for everything.

Indiana won Saturday, 91-77, to tie the series at 3-3 and push Miami to this brink. The cold-shooting Heat, dominated in the second half, shot a miserable 36 percent, and only 10 3-point baskets kept it as competitive as it was.


Everything, that’s all.

“Game 7s are a treasure in professional sports — the games we remember 20 years from now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “These are the times you reveal yourself, when there’s a little bit of adversity.”

Everything about this grudge of a playoff series has felt like two heavyweights trading punches and malice, both knocked back, neither falling, scorecards inconclusive. Spoelstra set the mood by showing his players tape of an old Muhammad Ali bout. Then Indiana coach Frank Vogel carried the metaphor further Saturday.

“What did they say in ‘Rocky’? What did Apollo Creed say?” asked Vogel rhetorically. “’Don’t stop this fight!’”

The Heat tried to do just that Saturday but could not.

Miami has not lost consecutive games since Jan. 10, a nearly unfathomable run of almost five months, but if that streaks ends Monday, brace for sky-is-falling calamity in the reaction and aftermath.

The Heat will be favored Monday, but what’s become troubling about the Heat lately continued to be troubling on the night that forced a Game 7.

Somehow, the reigning NBA champs have turned into the Miami Cavaliers — a team on which league MVP LeBron James must do it all because he isn’t getting enough help. Not nearly enough.

Remember when Miami had the Big 3?

Still does, but only ostensibly lately.

Dwyane Wade, fighting a deeply bruised right knee, has become a shell of his old, healthy self. And Chris Bosh has been even worse lately.

“I don’t want to talk about the knee,” Wade said afterward.

“My rhythm just seems off,” said Bosh.

Saturday was indicative of what the Big 3 have become this postseason.

LeBron continued dominant, scoring a game-high 29 points, but Wade and Bosh combined only scored 15 points on awful 4-for-19 shooting.

“I mean, we can state the obvious. They’re both struggling,” said LeBron.

Wade is now on a career-worst 12-game streak of failing to score 20 or more points. Reggie Miller, the former Pacer, has said on TNT that Wade seemed “uninterested” in this series, and “going through the motions.”

No. It surely isn’t a lack of interest. It is a lack of health handcuffing Wade. “Dwyane is giving us what he’s got,” as Spoelstra said.

But the bottom line is the same for Miami: The Big 3 has been reduced to the Big 1 by Wade and Bosh’s concurrent offensive slumps.

James even admitted he mentally “went back to my Cleveland days” in Game 5, aggressively taking over offensively — because he knew it was up to him. Because he knew Wade and Bosh — for whatever reason — were not playing like the two stars he came here to join in the summer of 2010.

James left Cleveland to escape the exact situation he finds himself in heading into Game 7.

Wade’s postseason average of 13.5 is a full 10 points under what he averaged the previous two postseasons. Bosh has been no better, scoring 20 only once in 15 playoff games this year including only 7, 7 and 5 the past three games.

Together Wade and Bosh are averaging 14 points fewer in this postseason than what they combined for in the regular season — a huge dropoff.

“We’ll try to get them where they can be aggressive,” Spoelstra had said before the game of the Wade/Bosh slump. “No question.”

And no question, it didn’t work.

Miami missed suspended Chris (Birdman) Andersen, although Joel Anthony filled in capably with a team-leading eight rebounds.

It wasn’t the lack of Birdman that cost Miami as much as it was Wade and Bosh still being caged, unable to fly.

“They’re a major part of what we do. I need to find a way to get them in places where they can be aggressive,” Spoelstra repeated himself afterward.

Wade’s frustration at being so physically limited when the team needs him most has become obvious, and a subject tread carefully.

“It can’t be put into words,” he said.

This was the second straight postseason Miami carried a 3-2 series lead into a Game 6 at Indiana, and the second straight year the Heat sought to triumphantly advance while leaving Pacers fans shell-shocked.

“We’ll see where we’re at,” said Pacer Paul George. “This will determine how much we’ve grown.”

They’ve grown.

The Heat seemed to as well, though — seemed better than ever — until lately.

This 25th franchise season in some ways has shaped up as the Heat’s best ever. It has been played as a reigning champion. It saw a club-record for regular victories (66). And it included 26 consecutive wins at one point, second-longest streak ever.

Only now the team that did all that has become a Big 1, not a Big 3.

The Pacers supposedly had desperation on their side Saturday, in what literally was a must-win for them. But the Heat said they were not conceding that mindset.

“We’re desperate, too,” LeBron had said. “We’re desperate to get back to the NBA Finals.”

Odds are they still will. But this has gotten very interesting, hasn’t it?

Two heavyweights lurch into a Round 7/Game 7 and we wait to see if the Heat can lift itself from the canvas and throw the hardest punch. And the last one.

It is what champions do.

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