MIAMI – The great affront to the Miami Heat players not named LeBron James over the last few days was not that they failed to step up and support their star in the NBA Finals opener. That much was obvious. No, it was the idea that they, lowly role players, might not be capable of rising up on the grand stage.
They may miss shots. They don't lack the courage to keep taking them though.
"Big-game guts," coach Erik Spoelstra called it.
No one has big-game guts more than Mario Chalmers, the shooting guard who once hit one of the most clutch shots in NCAA tournament history. He may never have been one of Miami's "Big Three" – which has turned into a "Big One" of late – but don't bother telling him.
"He's got guts," Spoelstra said. "Come on. He had that all the way in college. He's got incredible confidence in his game, even when sometimes, I wouldn't call it irrational …"
He'd call it something close though.
So here the NBA Finals were, Game 2, near the end of the third quarter, with San Antonio holding a one-point lead over the Heat. James was off his game offensively (just six points at the time). The AmericanAirlines Arena crowd was fretting with dread over the story that was flashing in front of them – the possibility of another methodical, Spurs strangling of the Heat, in this case into an unthinkable 2-0 Finals hole. So Mario Chalmers just after a driving layup and foul, walked up to LeBron James and shouted toward his ear.
"I told him, 'Let's go for the kill,' " Chalmers said.
Almost on cue, Miami became Miami – the explosive, electric Phi Slamma South Beach that's overwhelmed the league. There were steals. There were dunks. There were blocks, including a ferocious LeBron denial of Tiago Splitter deemed "just perfect" by Dwyane Wade. There were 3-pointers drained. There was the sustained, controlled fury of the Heat. This was the point of the operation. This was the plan in action.
"That was Miami Heat basketball," Wade said.
There was a 33-5 run that sent Miami to a 103-84 victory, the Finals to a 1-1 tie and this entire series to Texas with no one certain what's coming next. Is this a Miami awakening or just the inevitable spurt of greatness that won't translate on the road?
Know this: James' block of Splitter is the no-question highlight of the game, and a sign of the King's physical dominance over everyone in this series. The most important thing that went down here Sunday, however, was James' faith in his teammates being rewarded.
If all the talk prior to the game was about the Spurs' ability to limit LeBron and put the game in the hands of lesser talents, James kept laughing at the suggestion the others weren't capable of handling the challenge.
Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Birdman Andersen, what, those sound like frightened role players to anyone else? Let alone the forever-confident Chalmers, who just keeps on shooting.
"He just believes," Bosh said. "He believes. I don't know if it's because he hit that shot at Kansas but he carries it every day."
LeBron had 17 on 7 of 17 shooting, eight boards and seven assists. Six other Miami players had at least nine points, including Chalmers' game-high 19. San Antonio didn't stand a chance.
"That's how we won all year, getting everyone involved," Wade (10 points) said. "Obviously there are going to be certain games where guys are going, will have to be special, but we like to have games like this where everyone is involved and the ball is moving around."
Great teams full of great players can struggle to find motivation. This is especially true of a defending champion. A Game 1 defeat that cost them home-court advantage was a painful experience, but it placed the chip on the shoulder they may have needed.
There was a defiance coming from the defending champs. Almost everyone on the team has been a star on an NBA team at some point in his career. Many of the others were huge figures on national title-contending college teams.
"We have a lot of those guys," Spoelstra said. "You can't teach that quality, the big-game guts. They feel the most alive in these situations when you typically feel the most pressure. Drives me crazy sometimes in December, in January. But when you get to this time of year, you like it."
That, essentially, is what James had been trying to tell everyone. Maybe the world is waiting for him to break out a 40-point performance but if San Antonio is going to throw two or three players in front of him then, "I will continue to find my shooters."
If you don't think that counts as aggressive play, well, he doesn't care. He isn't into the stat line. This is how the team was constructed.
"Look, we've been in this fishbowl now for three years," Spoelstra said. "We don't get caught up in that. He's being aggressive. He's creating opportunities for us. It just might not be in the way you're accustomed to."
These are the Heat and LeBron James knows them better than anyone. Go ahead and try to deny him, he's saying. That's the gamble of this series and to that James just keeps smiling.
Go for the kill, Mario Chalmers told him, the supposed role player screaming motivational challenges at the superstar.
Yeah, it's off to Texas for three games. The championship is still very much in the balance, but there isn't anyone scared of what's to come around here.
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