Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Heat, fans show up big time in Game 3

We have seen this before, right? The Heat seems to start in slow motion. The Heat can’t find the rhythm, or the rim. The Heat looks disheveled. Worse, the Heat looks disinterested. The Heat has its fans restless, shaking heads, wanting to scream, “Wake up!”

Then the Heat wakes up.

Then the Heat wins.

Somehow, some way … the Heat wins.

It isn’t a mystery, though.

It is LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, with a side of Ray Allen.

Yes, we have seen this before.

James and Wade reminded us who the Big 2 in the Big 3 are here Saturday night, again, and that is why Miami is up 2-1 against Indiana in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals after a 99-87 victory that came hard, and took its time, but ultimately left the home crowd chanting merrily into the late night.

It had to be a demoralizing game for the Pacers, who had an early boot on Miami’s neck but could not resist the Heat’s systematic, relentless charge.

“We don’t want to keep digging holes,” James said of the early deficit Miami did not overcome until the third quarter. “I hate the way we started the game. But we’re a confident group. We don’t panic.”

A night like this is why Heat president Pat Riley was the envy of the league in coaxing James here in 2010, and why LeBron’s decision rocked and changed the NBA.

LeBron scored 26 on 9-for-14 shooting and led a huge defensive turnaround. Miami was plus-24 points with him on the floor.

And a night like this is what the season-long “maintenance” of Wade was for. Why he missed fully one-third of the regular-season, even as the Heat sacrificed the overall No. 1 seed entering the playoffs.

It was for this: Wade, healthy. Right now.

Wade, invigorated, as good as we have seen him in a while, right when it matters most.

He scored 23 points Saturday, his fourth straight big game offensively in this postseason. He bunched two three-points baskets late in the third quarter and early in the fourth – only his third and fourth 3’s of this postseason – for Miami’s first double-digit lead.

“Dwyane is able to create some opportunities right now that your average player can’t make,” said coach Erik Spoelstra.

A healthy Wade playing this well gives the Heat chance at a three-peat, and also a chance for LeBron to be convinced he’ll re-up with Miami during free agency this summer.

“I want to tell people he’s a young, fresh 32,” said Chris Bosh of Wade. “I don’t know why everybody acts like he’s 47. He’s good!”

Oh, and a night like this is why the Heat trusted that Allen was not done yet.

Allen, 38, second-oldest player in the league shot 4-for-4 on three-point shots and scored 16 off the bench.

If he hasn’t replaced quiet-again Bosh as the third member of the Big 3, well, he did this night.

Miami needed all of them to overcome a sluggish start that has been an at-times maddening issue for the Heat.

“We looked like we were stuck in mud in the first quarter,” said Spoelstra.

Miami’s 38 points at halftime were its fewest all season in a half. The Heat trailed by as many as 15 and never led until James’ two-handed dunk made it 52-51 with 7:36 left in the third quarter. The Heat never had the lead for good until much later in the quarter.

And Indiana drew as close as 83-79 in the fourth quarter before the two-time defending champions poured it on, ignited by two of Allen three-pointer. The one that made it 90-79 with 4:40 to play saw James spearing his fist into the air, his joyous scream lost in the sonic din of the crowd.

James, Wade and Allen provided the spark, but the turnaround was more fundamental, closer to the Heat’s core identity.

A smaller late lineup featuring Allen and Norris Cole opened the floor with speed for the offense, but it was defense that led the comeback.

“We were able to be very fast and active and disruptive defensively,” said James. “Defensively is where we make our mark.”

Miami now is 6-0 at home in this postseason, and Saturday’s crowd – filling every sea even before tipoff – helped keep the Heat in the game even as Indiana raced to an early 17-4 lead and dominated from the start. The ambience and “Let’s go Heat!” chants never let up.

It seems a fair time to mention that television analyst and professional irritant Charles Barkley slammed Heat fans this week. He said Cleveland fans were better – a reason he said he hoped James would leave Miami this summer and return to the Cavaliers.

A couple of points might be made in retort.

One is that championship-chasing LeBron is aiming for his third consecutive title here, while hope in Cleveland has just redefined itself as trusting that Johnny Manziel might save the moribund Browns. In Miami we’re in search of a dynasty. In Cleveland they’re looking for a snow shovel.

The other point is that Heat fans – the ones who have sold out the home arena 201 consecutive times now including Saturday – hardly merit the criticism.

Get on Panthers fans put off by years of hockey irrelevance if you wish. Or Marlins fans who say they won’t support this owner. Or Dolphins fans who seldom sell out that stadium.

Heat fans show up. They should, absolutely. They’re cheering a champion, led by the greatest player in the world. But they show up – just like their team did Saturday, better late than never.

The Heat has yet to play a complete game in this series.

“We’ve yet to get to our game,” said Spoelstra.

Said Wade: “We haven’t played as good a game as we want yet.”

But what the Heat has done in this series is show the resolve and resourcefulness to overcome what it must. In this case it was an awful start, a 38-point half, and an opponent that means to slow it down and deny the rim and grind it to a halt.

The Heat find a way.

Champions do that.

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