It’s nearly impossible to determine what, if anything, motivates the Miami Heat. After the Celtics’ 93-91 overtime win in Game 4 at TD Garden that tied the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat took solace in returning home for the critical Game 5.
That was going to be their salve. Another sweltering day in South Beach would turn into dusk, and those late-arriving fans would fill up AmericanAirlines Arena and provide the Heat with enough motivation to play their best game of the series.
It didn’t work out that way. The Heat played much the same as they did in the previous two games, except they got off to a better start, building an early lead they couldn’t hold. Now on the brink of elimination and perhaps the premature end of their Big Three Era, the Heat have more reason than ever to play cohesively and with passion.
And there is no guarantee they will.
Game 6 carries significance for both sides.
Over the past three years, the Celtics are 2-5 in their first opportunities to close out a playoff series, but have no desire to return to Miami for a Game 7.
The Celtics are viewing Thursday’s showdown as their version of a Game 7, an opportunity to win a series under the best conditions.
For the Heat, it’s an opportunity not only to extend the series, but to play with the passion and intensity they have lacked most of the series. They are considered by many front-runners and have done little to dispel that. Their best example of grit was during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when they rallied from an 11-point deficit to defeat the Pacers.
But the task of defeating the Celtics has proven more difficult and mentally taxing. Last June, the Heat lost Games 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals in Dallas and returned home trailing, three games to two. The consensus was that Miami would muster enough pride and display enough execution to take Game 6 and force the Mavericks to a decisive Game 7 in South Beach.
But the Mavericks continued to apply pressure, and the Heat pulled back and eventually relented after an 8-0 Dallas run increased the lead to 12 midway through the fourth quarter. The Heat were mentally fried.
“The Decision,’’ “The Runway Show,’’ the slow start that had some critics questioning the competence of coach Erik Spoelstra had taken too much from Miami. The road to an NBA championship was not as paved with yellow bricks as the Heat believed.
Exhaustion overcame wherewithal and talent last year, and the question for Thursday is whether the difficulty of the road has again rendered the Heat fatigued and unable to conquer an elite opponent.
The Mavericks of last year were similar to these Celtics. They were aging, banged up, and couldn’t match Miami’s pure talent. But coach Rick Carlisle, like Doc Rivers, lapped Spoelstra with his game preparation.
And while Miami’s high-flying dunks and baseball passes for layups were more attractive to the eye, the Mavericks were more effective with their scoring at will off pick-and-rolls and their relentless guards wearing out LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
The Celtics have forced the Heat to reconsider their toughness and guile. If Spoelstra happens to lose his job after this season, he would make quite a living as a motivational speaker, because he says all the right things, accepts the challenges, and attempts to turn adversity into teaching moments.
“We’ve shown some toughness and some character, and we’ll have to show it now on Thursday,’’ he said following Game 5. “That’s what this is all about, getting tested. These are the moments where you can have breakthroughs.
“We’re the only people we can depend on right now. So that can be a very powerful thing. All we have to do is focus on winning Game 6 and then all of a sudden, bang, that momentum changes again.’’
He’s correct. The Miami Heat are one polished performance away from changing the tone of this series again, from coming home for a Game 7 in Miami.
When heavyweight champion Jack Johnson fought Jess Willard under the blazing Havana sun in April 1915, he was knocked down by the mammoth Kansan in the 26th round. The one indication that Johnson had finally relented his six-year reign was allowing his legs to relax as the referee counted to 10.
Johnson was done. And the Heat allowed their legs to relax last June, when Dallas continued to apply the pressure and test their desire.
Thursday’s Game 6 is about simple desire. The Celtics have proven to be the mentally tougher team. The question for the Heat is whether they have such toughness - or at least can develop it in such dire circumstances. On the verge of forcing a Game 7 at home in the Finals last year, the Heat wilted, unable or unwilling to fight further.
Spoelstra would like to think his team has learned from that experience, turned that pain into motivation and devotion. But the NBA public has yet to see that fight, and Thursday may be the Heat’s final chance to show that they aspire to greatness. Because we haven’t seen it so far.