MIAMI - Heat coach Erik Spoelstra attempted to take a step back Monday and appreciate the competitiveness of the Eastern Conference finals, crediting the Celtics for their valiant play the past two games to tie the series.
Perhaps it was a ploy to deflect the growing pressure on the Heat, who just last week were prepping injured All-Star forward Chris Bosh for the NBA Finals because they had enough to dispose of the Celtics without him.
Now with the Heat needing to snatch back momentum in the pivotal Game 5 Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, Spoelstra is contemplating bringing back Bosh after a nine-game absence. It appears the Heat need Bosh to finish off the Celtics, a move some may view as desperate and an indication that the Heat aren’t as dominant or cohesive as they believed.
It was bizarre that the Heat players appeared content with their situation because they were headed home for Game 5.
“We’ve just got to come out with a sense of urgency,’’ LeBron James said. “The last two games we’ve come in and they’ve hit us hard. We’ve been down and it’s been an uphill battle the first 2 1/2 quarters. If we come in with a sense of urgency, we know what it takes to win. Nobody said this is easy. This is great. This is what the postseason is all about. It’s all about adversity and ups and down. We’re looking forward to Game 5. We’re headed home and we have the opportunity to play again.’’
The reality is the Heat are staggering, with Spoelstra making changes in reaction to Doc Rivers’s changes. As the series has progressed, Spoelstra has realized he can’t use the standard game plan and standard roster to beat the Celtics. He has shuttled centers in and out. He has toyed with his second unit, even going with guard Norris Cole, who had hit the rookie wall and been banished to the end of the bench.
In Sunday night’s Game 4, Spoelstra felt a couple of minor adjustments along with the combination of James and a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade would be enough to win in Boston and take control of the series. But the Celtics withstood Miami’s comeback and in overtime James fouled out for the first time in four years.
The loss psychologically damaged the Heat, forcing them to look at their weaknesses and ponder a hasty return for Bosh, who has been mostly unheralded as the third wheel of Miami’s Big Three, but is appreciated within the organization.
“All we’re focused on is [Game 5],’’ Spoelstra said. “We have to find different ways to win. All we’re focused on is what we have to do and that maybe we have to grind games and try to hold them to a low percentage. Maybe not all the possessions will be pretty, but when the competition is fierce like it is now, you just have to find different ways to win.’’
The Heat have too much history with the Celtics to take the old guys lightly. The players displayed great respect the day after Boston survived Game 7 against the 76ers and were headed to Miami for yet another clash.
But the Heat had to be more confident about beating the Celtics with relative ease because of their success in last year’s conference semifinals and the barrage of Celtics injuries, most recently robbing them of top defender Avery Bradley.
But the Celtics regained their swagger and confidence with a solid Game 2 performance and Rivers made all the right moves to win the next two games. Meanwhile, Ray Allen, bad ankle and all, rediscovered his 3-point stroke and the bench suddenly produced.
So when the Heat flew back to Miami on Monday morning, the possibility of flipping the Bosh card into the high-stakes game became more real. While Spoelstra always appears under control with the media, there was definitely a sense of desperation here.
“The reality of it is it’s not a normal situation,’’ he said. “Everything’s heightened. It is extreme and so we’ll have to be very judicious in our evaluations [of Bosh]. Everybody knows that has been around our team that he’s been a major component of what we do.’’
The Heat knew eliminating the Celtics wouldn’t be easy, but they figured it would be easier than this. They fully expected to split Games 3 and 4 in Boston, return home to close out the series, and get some rest before the Finals. With doubt and insecurity setting in, the Heat have tried to just appreciate the moment.
It’s a noble gesture, but the question is whether it’s a sign of panic.
“You live for this,’’ Spoelstra said. “If you’re a competitor, you live for this. And it’s everything about it. It’s the highs and the lows, the knowing but not knowing. It’s competition, man. These are the days 20 years from now, we’ll all be thinking about, aww man, that’s when you felt most alive.’’
The next few games will show how tough and resilient Miami really is. The Heat are being tested mightily, and they haven’t always thrived under those circumstances.