Greg Cote

Greg Cote: After Game 5 loss, Miami Heat must now take hard road to title against Spurs

This night was about how Tuesday is going to feel.

The way NBA Finals Game 5 ended here Sunday was about how South Florida is going to awaken the morning of the next game, and what will be on Heat fans’ minds as they attempt to concentrate at work and then traipse into the home arena that night.

It might have felt so good, right? Might have been a party. Could have been. A victory for a 3-2 series lead and Miami would have been poised and ready to celebrate a second consecutive championship that night. Hialeah would have the pots and pans out. Anybody near Biscayne Boulevard might have anticipated getting zero sleep for the incessant bleat of car horns.

Tuesday would have felt like a coronation in waiting.


Piñatas replaced by Pepto.

Stomachs, clenched.

Hearts, palpitating.

Fingers, crossed.

The Heat had the chance to make the rest of this seem so easy — well, easier — but Sunday’s 114-104 Game 5 loss took care of that desired path and lined the Road to Repeat with treachery.

Now, to be champions again, Miami must do what it has failed to do for the past 12 postseason games: Win two in a row.

Now, Heat fans are left to pray the next game is survived as much as won and that Miami — team and city — gets to the scariest thing in all of sports:

A Game 7.

Do you believe, South Florida?

How much do you believe?

“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had said last week.

Sunday night made him a prophet.

Miami never led in Game 5. It was tied 17-17 early. The Heat drew within 75-74 late. But every time it got close, San Antonio had all the answers.

The Spurs burst out on a 19-1 run after Miami had drawn within one.

“We felt we’d weathered the storm,” Spoelstra said of that one-point margin. “But it went downhill from there. It snowballed.”

The Heat’s Big 3 came up big again, with LeBron James (25 points), Dwyane Wade (25) and Chris Bosh (16) combining for 66 points. And Ray Allen had 21 off the bench. But Miami shot only 43 percent as a team while its defense allowed the Spurs to shoot 60 percent.

“Offensively, [we] weren’t very good or very efficient,” Spoelstra said.

The defense was worse. The Heat’s failings there were the night’s biggest disappointment. Giving up 114 points and 60 percent shooting are scarlet numbers — close to embarrassing — to a team that prides itself on defense as a mind-set and culture.

Wade blamed the slow start.

“We continue to start slow,” he said afterward. “We dig ourselves into a deep hole very early. Unlike Game 3 we fought back, but they keep coming at us.”

San Antonio started Manu Ginobili to help match Miami’s quicker small-ball approach, and it worked. At times it seemed the Heat’s defense was on its heels. Finals thorn Danny Green had six more three-pointers, giving him 25 for the series to break Allen’s Finals record.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich exhorted his team during a fourth-quarter timeout to “knock the stuffing out of them,” but the San Antonio lead was then around 20. In the stuffing category, the Heat was playing the Scarecrow from Oz for most of the night before closing it a bit late.

The mystery that has imperiled Miami’s repeat-title hopes is that a team that won a club-record 66 regular-season games, including 27 in a row, has failed lately to prove it can win even two in a row.

Back-to-back used to mean consecutive championships. Now it means consecutive victories.

Miami last won two in a row in a playoff series a full month ago, against Chicago. The two series since have seen the Heat play 12 games in a row without back-to-back wins. The Heat is on an 0-6 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.

“Enough is enough,” LeBron had said before the game, of the imperative to finally win two in a row. “We’re well overdue.”

They still are.

Now it’s all or nothing on that.

The cliff has suddenly appeared. You fall, or you push the other guy off.

In NBA Finals history, 27 previous series have been tied 2-2, and the Game 5 winner has won 20 times, or 74 percent. That included Dallas, over Miami, in the 2011 Finals.

“We’re a better team now,” Wade said.

“We’re gonna see if we’re a better team,” LeBron amended.

That historical trend is ominous for Miami, but against the weight of that the Heat has the best player in the world, and it has a Big 3 that was formed for moments like this and that has risen up the past two games.

Oh, and it has the home court it worked all season to earn. That means the Heat has you, South Florida.

Do you believe?

Can you help lift the team?

Two wins in a row at home now, Tuesday and Thursday, will mean another parade is coming. Anything but will mean a long offseason of questions and doubt.

“Can’t worry about Game 7,” LeBron said. “We’ve got to be confident about getting a win in Game 6 — which we are.”

The Heat was 37-4 at home during the regular season, and it’s 8-3 by the bay during these playoffs. At one point this season Miami won 17 home games in a row.

Can it win two in a row now — right now, when it absolutely must?

The question teases and troubles South Florida’s week now.

To Heat fans, it has become the only question that matters.

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