We have officially stepped gingerly, uncomfortably, into “Be Careful What You Wish For” territory.
A month ago, a week ago, Miami Heat fans wished nothing more than to face LeBron James in the playoffs, in a presumptive Eastern Conference finals. Through the South Florida prism, beating LeBron and his Cavaliers, denying him yet again his dream of delivering an NBA championship to Cleveland, would be the ultimate payback for the way he left Miami. It would make the Heat’s season a success even if a likely Finals loss followed.
Now, Heat fans must grapple with the conundrum of whether to even want their team to advance past Toronto and get to LeBron. Because tears are surely waiting, no? Humiliation, even. Perhaps the indignity of being swept in four straight games while LeBron exalts and preens and Pat Riley is left to watch it all grimly, nearly as embarrassed and angry as he was that day on the West Coast when a distracted LeBron granted a token last-minute meeting to Riley and talked to his buddies during it, knowing all the while he was jilting the Heat and heading back to Ohio.
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LeBron, resting after a Cavs sweep of Atlanta, is biding time, licking lips, waiting for the Miami-Toronto survivor and no doubt hoping it’s the Heat.
The best hope of either the Heat or Raptors is that LeBron might injure himself, perhaps break a rib, belly-laughing so hard at the idea either could beat him and his Cavs right now.
Like Bernie Sanders supporters still trying to find a path to the presidential nomination against mounting odds, even the most hopeful Heat fans would be hard-pressed to fathom any scenario in which the Heat, right now, could possibly beat Cleveland.
Maybe with Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside both healthy and playing. Maybe.
But as is? Without both big men?
Doubtful. But the Heat kept alive that hope, at least, in a Monday night Game 4 that was both a dreadful and a thriller all at once.
Miami needed the full seven games to get past Charlotte in the first round, even with Whiteside. Now the Heat is struggling to survive Toronto in a 2-2 series after Monday’s 94-87 overtime home victory led by 30 points from — who else? — Dwyane Wade. It was the third OT in four games in this impossibly even series. Even with this near-must-win, though, the Heat still must win two of the next three games and find a way to win at least one of them in Toronto — tall odds.
Best-case scenario, Miami would advance to the East finals after what could be a grueling 14 postseason games, still be missing Bosh and perhaps still be without Whiteside ... and face a purring, percolating, rested Cavs team coming in off a pair of four-game sweeps and primed for another one. A month ago, a week ago, Miami somehow getting into LeBron’s head and beating him seemed a lot more plausible than it does now as the rested team hits its stride and the other team is pushed to the limit and missing two very important players.
Coaches and athletes don’t think like this, of course. Not wired that way. At least publicly. If I were a Heat fan I’d seriously wonder if I’d just as soon see my team bow out in this round rather than face that LeBron buzzsaw lying in wait. But victories like Monday’s, so necessary, nourish belief, even if the odds remain tall.
It was not an art lover’s game, not pretty, as both teams adjusted to the injuries to starting centers Whiteside and Jonas Valanciunas. Miami needed overtime, at home, to sneak by even though Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (a combined 6-for-28) played as if shooting oversized basketballs at undersized rims, like on a carnival midway. Beyond the still-magical Wade, nobody played especially great for Miami. The Heat shot 1-for-15 on 3-point attempts.
Still, the more desperate Heat winning Monday, after they had lost Game 3 at home, was not a surprise even as ugly as it was and as it stretched to extra time. Miami is strong in its bayside arena, its only consecutive home losses all season coming Feb. 7 and 9 vs. the West power Clippers and Spurs.
It is on the road where the Heat has struggled, at 20-21 during the regular season and 2-3 so far in the playoffs. That’s average. That’s a mortal, beatable team stepping off the airplane — a team that now must win at least one of the next two games in Toronto.
If only this Heat team could suddenly marshal the villainous role that made Miami such a feared road team during the LeBron era. That team fed on opposing fans’ boos and derision like no team Miami had seen since the swagger-era, title-winning football Hurricanes of the 1980s.
So, in that case, maybe the perception that Wade has egregiously disrespected the entire nation of Canada is the best thing that could have happened to the Heat.
It assures Wade will be public enemy numero un when the Heat and Raptors play Game 5 up there Wednesday night. The boos will rain down to punish the temerity of Wade’s faux pas in taking pregame warmup shots the other night while O Canada was being sung.
“I apologize for Canada thinking I would disrespect them,” Wade said Monday night after the game.
Boos will come anyway in Game 5. It’ll sound like the old days, when LeBron made Miami the most hated team in America.
“We take it as respect,” Wade said then of the vitriol. “We embrace it. We play better on the road.”
They don’t anymore, but they had better at least one of the next two games in Toronto, or this season hits a dead end one round short of LeBron and the Cavs.
That, of course, may not be an entirely bad thing.
But games like Monday’s, victories that needed, let you dream a little bit longer.