After a regular season defined by crunch-time blunders and late collapses, the Heat’s postseason had been defined by gritty closing performances that saw the Heat holding onto close leads or pulling off comebacks in the fourth quarter.
All of that changed during Thursday night’s 95-93 loss, which may end up being Miami’s most important game of the season. With just over seven minutes remaining, Dwyane Wade hit a three right in front of the Mavericks bench to give the Heat a 15-point lead, one of the most comfortable leads the team has had all post-season long.
Then the collapse came. Jason Terry got loose and starting hitting shots and getting to the free throw line, Miami’s defense relaxed and allowed the Mavericks to hit jumpers, and Dirk Nowitzki stepped up to hit the go-ahead three with 26 seconds remaining and a game-winning layup after Mario Chalmers answered Nowitzki’s three with one of his own.
Not only did the Heat do everything wrong; they did what everybody said they would do wrong all year long. They got arrogant and took their eyes off the prize. They got lazy on defense. Most unforgivably, their offense devolved into hero-ball, with James and Wade (mostly James) running down the clock for 20 seconds and firing up a deep, contested jumper instead of trying to run the offense correctly and get the Heat the baskets they needed to hold off the Mavericks’ charge. Overall, the Heat missed 10 of their last 11 shots, which opened the door for the Mavericks to pull off the stunning comeback. If James still doesn’t have his first ring when this series is over, he has only himself and his performance in the final seven minutes of this game to blame.
After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called the fourth “about as tough of a quarter as you can have,” and that when things started to slide, they “kept on going.” He also called the close to the game “uncharacteristic” for the Heat, which has been true throughout the postseason, but it doesn’t mean they get a do-over on a Finals loss.
James and the Heat worked all post-season long to shake off the image of them as a preening, mentally weak team who couldn’t close out close games and two superstars whose egos would prevent them from playing with each other correctly on offense. After spending the first 16 games and 3.5 quarters of Game 2 shaking that reputation, the Heat earned it right back in seven minutes.
Now, there’s only one way for the team to exonerate itself: win at least one game in Dallas and win the NBA championship. Because if they don’t, this game could haunt them for years to come. After the game, Spoelstra reminded everyone that this is a “long series” and that the Heat will “bounce back.” Spoelstra had better hope his players are up to the task, because if the Heat manage to let a title slip out of their fingers in one of the most dramatic ways possible, it’s going to be a very long summer for one of the most hyped teams in recent memory.