The Miami Heat were nearing the end of a 2 1/2 -hour practice Saturday when James punctuated it with a highlight play. Players and coaches say they’re focused on the Philadelphia 76ers—a win in Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday would complete a sweep. Judging by the pace of practice at Saint Joseph’s University, it seemed they were already gearing up for a showdown with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We don’t look ahead,” James said. “No one on this team looks ahead. This series isn’t over yet. We got Philly to worry about. If we get to Boston, whenever that happens, then we’ll get ready to take care of business, but I’m not looking ahead to those guys because we still have to finish what we started.”
The Celtics also have a 3-0 lead in their first-round series against the New York Knicks. No team in NBA history has ever come back from such a deficit to win the series.
So, it would take a monumental collapse for the Heat not to play the Celtics in the next round. The playoff matchup everyone expected—James, Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) and the Heat vs. Boston’s Big Three plus Rajon Rondo(notes)—is almost a reality.
“It wouldn’t be right if Miami and Boston didn’t meet in the playoffs,” Wade said. “Everyone is expecting that, but we both have to finish our business.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he’s watched the Knicks-Celtics series as a fan, leaving the scouts to analyze and breakdown film. He wouldn’t even comment on Rondo’s sensational performance—20 assists—in Boston’s victory in Game 3.
“I’m not letting myself get there,” Spoelstra said. “We have enough to take care of right now. If I let my mind drift, my focus drift, if we start talking about other things, that’s probably the most dangerous thing we can do. Philly has given us all we can handle. Right now, I’m looking at what we can do better, where our holes have been, what they can do to capitalize on it. These first quarters in two of the three games were not our best. At the end we had to play with extreme desperation.”
The Sixers outscored the Heat 60-40 in the first quarters of Games 1 and 3. They raced to double-digit leads in both games only to apart at the end. No one thought a team that finished 41-41 would seriously push the Heat. Even Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said he knows the team is considered merely a “speed bump” for the Heat. All the Sixers want is to get a win, avoid a sweep and send the series back to South Beach for one more game.
“We just want, first of all, to get a win at home,” said Andre Iguodala(notes), a major disappointment in the series. “The crowd was really behind the guys. They gave us a lot of support. That’s definitely our first goal, to win at home. I think the guys have been motivated from the start, in tuned to what the coaches say and focused in and really been motivated. We’ve played hard. I expect that to be the same.”
Effort isn’t Philadelphia’s problem. They’re simply overmatched against a team that was put together to win an NBA title.
The Sixers are a young team with little playoff experience. They haven’t been intimated by Miami’s superstars, and Collins isn’t going to let them go down without a fight.
“That’s the good thing about having a young group,” Iguodala said. “They just have that natural energy. And they’re just too goofy to know the situation, so they’re always excited to play the game. It kind of rubs off on everyone. They’re always wanting to play another game.”
Spoelstra is quite aware of this.
“This is still a series until you eliminate somebody,” he said. “They’re a dangerous team. They’re young enough to not understand any statistics or anything that’s happened over the years, 3-0. The way they are, their fabric, they’re gonna keep on coming. They’re relentless, they’re well- coached, they will not stop. We will have to earn this victory.”