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ON BASKETBALL

Time for Heat to show they’re still hungry

It’s possible that LeBron James is playing his final game for the Miami Heat on Sunday. The superstar can opt out of his contract after the season. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

TONY GUTIERREZ/AP

It’s possible that LeBron James is playing his final game for the Miami Heat on Sunday. The superstar can opt out of his contract after the season.

SAN ANTONIO — It’s mind-boggling how quickly a dynasty can end. Just a week ago, the Miami Heat were the prohibitive favorites to win their third consecutive NBA title. A half-energized LeBron James led the Heat to a Game 2 victory over the San Antonio Spurs to even the Finals.

Then the real Spurs arrived. James became overwhelmed with responsibility. His teammates melted in the intensity of the moment. Dwyane Wade suddenly looked creaky and uninterested. And now the Heat are close to extinction.

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James could opt out of his contract and head elsewhere. Wade may no longer be considered a primary option, and the inconsistent Chris Bosh could be traded. All of those possibilities were laughable just a week ago, when the Heat looked like the considerably better team through two games of the NBA Finals.

Now that their flaws have been exposed, now that the Spurs have proven to be a bigger juggernaut than last season, when they were 29 seconds from snatching the title from Miami, the Heat have spent the past 72 hours pondering their mortality, realizing that it will take near-perfect basketball over the next three games to retain their championship, but visibly unsure if they are capable of such consistency.

The only member of the Heat’s Big Three who seemed at peace on Saturday was James, who spent his 15-minute session with the media joking, smiling, and even referring to great comebacks in championship series, such as the Red Sox’ rally from three games down in 2004 against the Yankees.

James has been, by far, the most productive Heat player, and while there may be turmoil this summer if president Pat Riley decides to reshape the roster, James appears content with what he has accomplished in Miami. Four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, two titles, the restoring of his image following “The Decision,” and earning his status as the unquestioned best player in the game.

It’s not that James spent the past three days combing over his accomplishments, but he freely admitted he’s not as stressed as he was three years ago, when he was the best player never to win a championship.

“Well, I mean, two championships helps that,” James said of dealing with the pressure. “It helps it, for sure. But [also] understanding what means a lot to me. Understanding what’s important and understanding what’s not important allows me to kind of just live in the moment and not focus on what’s happened in the past. I can’t control the past. I can’t redo it. I can live in the present, try to affect the future and live with the results while I’m in it.”

Even the most veteran teams learn a lot about themselves in championship series. The 2004 Lakers were expected to steamroll the Detroit Pistons but were embarrassed by a scrappier, hungrier, and better team. And soon after, the Lakers were a dysfunctional bunch. Kobe and Shaq were enemies. Phil Jackson was tired and the Karl Malone-Gary Payton experiment was an abject failure.

All of that was exposed in the five-game series. And the same thing may be occurring here, unless the Heat are poised to make history because no team has ever won after trailing, three games to one, in the NBA Finals. James, a sports history buff, ran off several teams in the NBA and Major League Baseball that responded from apparently insurmountable deficits, including the ’04 Red Sox.

But honestly, neither he nor coach Erik Spoelstra have any idea what to expect from their cohorts.

“Our competition and our focus is [Sunday],” Spoelstra said. “But if you would have said at the beginning of the year that, hey, this group, you’re going to have another chance and go to the Finals, our guys aren’t so entitled that we take that for granted, that you make it to the Finals, but you’re going to be there, but it’s going to be a different journey, it’s going to be a lot tougher than the year before, all of our guys would have signed up for that.”

So the opportunity is there to create history, cement themselves as a dynasty with three consecutive wins over what is considered a superior team that is peaking, and the Heat are saying all the right things about embracing the challenge. But no great team goes down quietly, even though privately there may be players who believe they are done, exhausted from the journey.

The Spurs have spent the past 12 months lamenting their Game 6 loss at Miami last June — even mild-mannered general manager R.C. Buford admitted that Saturday. The Spurs are hungry, passionate, and motivated. Do the Heat share that same hunger? It hasn’t appeared that way. It appears the Heat’s small weaknesses have become larger as the playoffs have progressed. Age has become a factor and James cannot beat a collective, cohesive group alone.

So, we will see what Miami has left on Sunday. If it’s what the Heat displayed in Games 3 and 4, then their run is over.

James seemed appreciative of the sojourn, regardless of the outcome.

“For me, it’s like you either don’t make the playoffs or you win a championship,” James said. “There’s no in between. I don’t want no first-round victory, no second-round victory, no Eastern Conference finals. Either I don’t make the playoffs or I would rather get my two months off, get my body rested or win the Finals. I don’t want no in between.

“Obviously, we have a tall task, a tough task, but we’re here, we’re in the moment, and do your best. Just go out and perform, play basketball at a high level. Something you’ve been doing your whole life. Live with the results, man, and go from there.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.
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