MIAMI — It would have been inconceivable in March and April when the Heat ran off 27 consecutive wins to wonder whether this team could win two in a row, yet that’s the pressing question as it enters Game 6 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night.
The Heat trail the San Antonio Spurs in the series, 3-2, with the final two games (if necessary) at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. The Heat return home to either close out the series or get closed out, and they enter with an avalanche of pressure.
Would a loss mean the end of Miami’s Big Three? Will LeBron James opt out of his contract after next season after a second NBA Finals loss in three years? What will happen with mercurial Chris Bosh? Who is truly to blame for another NBA Finals meltdown?
Game 6 will have a more intense atmosphere than the usual beach parties that Heat games have become. The Heat returned home two years ago in an identical situation, having lost Game 5 at Dallas, 112-103.
They were confident that two supreme efforts against the aging Mavericks would mean a championship in the first season of the Big Three collaboration. Instead, the Mavericks extended a 2-point halftime lead to 9 at the end of the third quarter, and then the Heat relented, losing 105-95.
“We challenge ourselves to see if we’re a better team than we were [then],” guard Dwyane Wade said. “Same position no matter how we got to it. We’re in the same position going back home with Game 6 on our home floor. So we’re going to see if we’re a better ballclub and if we’re better prepared for this moment. Everything happens for a reason. And this is not a bad reason at all to go home for Game 6 on your home floor.”
Perhaps because it was Father’s Day and all four of their sons were on the trip, but James and Wade were uncharacteristically upbeat considering their arduous task. For the past 13 games, the once-mighty Heat have alternated wins and losses, backing up impressive performances with drab and uninspired efforts.
On Sunday, they rallied to cut a 17-point deficit to 1 with 3:05 remaining in the third, then allowed a 19-1 San Antonio run over the next 5½ minutes. A team that looked so flawless in Game 4, using a combined 85 points from James, Wade, and Bosh to cruise to a 109-93 win, proved inept in the second half. And now they must play their two best games of the season in a three-day span to avoid falling short for the second time in three years.
“I always kind of focus on the present,” James said. “And for us the next challenge is Tuesday night. We will get better tomorrow. We’re going to watch film, see ways we can clean up our starts, especially our first quarter. We’re not playing well in the first quarter. We have to figure that out. But our next challenge, biggest challenge will be Tuesday night. We have an opportunity on our home floor with our home fans to keep the series going, and we look forward to it.”
The consequences of losing could be monumental. The Heat won 66 regular-season games and were without question the best team in the NBA entering the playoffs, yet they were taken to seven games by the Pacers without Danny Granger and will need seven games to beat the Spurs.
Two years ago, the Heat were favorites over the Mavericks but blew a 15-point lead in Game 2, missing a chance to jump ahead, 2-0, then watched the Mavericks gain confidence and take the series.
While the prospect of losing Game 6 is not a primary thought for the Big Three, Wade acknowledged the stakes of the game are too large to ignore, especially since it could mean significant roster changes.
“Last year we had an opportunity, we were up, 3-1, [against Oklahoma City], I couldn’t go to sleep that night,’’ he said. “All I thought about was, ‘All we have to do is win one more and we’re champions.’ So obviously you’re going to think that way. You also have a game to play. [The Spurs] understand winning that last game is one of the hardest things you’re going to do. And we understand it as well. I like our chances, just like they like their chances, in this series and in Game 6.’’
For James, his legacy could be up for more criticism. Losing Tuesday or Thursday would be a third NBA Finals loss in four tries, leaving perhaps the greatest player of this generation with one ring in 10 years and just one with two perennial All-Stars in Miami.
He didn’t seem awed by the task Sunday night. James spoke calmly, then joked and played with his sons on the way to the team bus following Miami’s last road game of the season.
He was coming home and the Heat hope that’s enough to snatch the series.
“I have to come up big, for sure in Game 6. But I believe we all have to play at a high level in order to keep the series going,” he said. “So me being one of the leaders of this team, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to force a Game 7, and I look forward to the challenge. The most important game is Game 6. We can’t worry about a Game 7. We have to worry about Game 6 and going back home, being confident about our game, being confident about getting a win, which we are. So it is what it is. We have a Game 6 on our home floor.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.