INDIANAPOLIS -- As the final buzzer sounded, these Miami Heat pushed to the brink in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James refused to wait a moment before beginning a determined and deliberate process of elevating his decaying Miami Heat. One by one, they walked out of the failure of Game 6, into the uncertainty of a Game 7, and James stood at mid-court clapping, cheering and cajoling his fading, failing teammates as they passed him on the way into the losing locker room.
"This is where your brotherhood gets strengthened," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Or, perhaps, this is where the team that was supposed to be basketball's greatest modern dynasty lets a championship destiny perish for the second time in three years.
After a 91-77 loss on Saturday night, the Heat march into a Game 7 with an understanding that they're no longer constructed for victory unless LeBron James plays out of his mind, plays out of this world. That happens – happens a lot – but this becomes a slippery slope for the Heat's championship chances when that becomes a necessity for victory.
Three years ago, the Big Three brashly introduced themselves on a rising stage, stepping out of the smoke and into the clear. Now, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh come out of the smoke coughing and wheezing and doubled over, no longer standing shoulder to shoulder with James.
The best player in the world remains relentless in his public support and belief of his co-stars, but he didn't indulge his close friend's delusion of the circumstances of the Heat's playoff demise.
"We have to do a better job of getting opportunities for me and Chris to succeed," Wade said.
Wade missed layup upon layup, leaving eight, maybe 10 points on the floor. Over and over, Wade reached the rim, but couldn't close on the most elementary of finishes. Better job of getting opportunities for him? That's a code for blaming his coach and sparing himself the reality of his responsibilities.
James refused to play the part of an enabler on Saturday night. This is time for self-reliance, time for truth telling. He's lent himself to be a cheerleader, to keep encouraging his teammates, keep telling them that he believes in them. His job isn't to tell lies or manufacture fairy tales.
"I am able to replay a lot of plays in my head," James said, and soon he started to list – one by one – the circumstance of every, easy Wade miss on Saturday night. No video clips needed, James remembered them all.
Above everything, James understands that even his greatness can't overcome Wade and Bosh missing 15 of 19 shots for the game, a formula for failure with the way the Pacers pound the Heat on the boards, pound them inside.
"We can state the obvious: They're both struggling," James said.
Yes, Wade's knee has been troublesome for weeks; Bosh turned an ankle in the series. They're still commanded to find a way, because champions do.
"My rhythm seems off," Bosh said. "It's been like that the whole series."
This is no time for rhythm, only results. The Pacers' David West played with a 103-degree fever, a league source told Yahoo! Sports, and somehow he delivered on a night that started out with him missing seven straight shots, with his coach telling him, "You have nothing tonight" and trying to take him out of the game.
West refused to sit and played his part in pushing the Heat back to Miami for a Game 7. If the Heat are still going to get past Indiana on Monday night, there promises to be a terrific toll taken on them with the San Antonio Spurs awaiting in the NBA Finals. Yes, Boston pushed Miami to a Game 7 a year ago, but Bosh had returned late in the series and Miami gathered momentum as those conference finals unfolded. Now, they gather doubt.
Chris Andersen comes back for Game 7, and history suggests that Wade loves creating these desperate scenarios for himself – only to rise again to the cheers of the adoring South Florida masses. And yet, to watch these Heat now, it is impossible to imagine how they won 27 straight games this season. That feels like a different team, a different season.
This is a grind for Miami, dominance left far, far back in the distance. This is sheer survival now. So yes, James played the part of the cheerleading, optimist leader late Saturday night, professing a belief in his heart when perhaps a different truth about his teammates exists in his eyes.
"Those guys are professionals, as championships, we'll figure it out," James said. "And me as the leader, I'll have to help them figure it out."
Whatever revelations transform Wade and Bosh between games 6 and 7, whatever they draw upon to salvage this series, make no mistake: The burden on LeBron James to carry this roster has never been so extraordinary, the presumption of Heat victory never so uncertain.
Before they left the floor, James had started to prepare these Miami Heat for Monday and a most unmistakable mission: Sparing themselves the embarrassment of a second collapse in three seasons, sparing themselves of history remembering this team not as a dynasty for the ages, but one of sport's great disappointments.
Three years ago, the stage rose, and the smoke spit out and the Big Three emerged to change championship basketball forever in the NBA. Only now, Miami is wobbling the way those old Cleveland Cavaliers used to this time of year, when the genius of LeBron James couldn't overcome the pedestrian play surrounding him. He's far more equipped to handle all that now, but rest assured he never came to Miami believing that he had to pitch perfect games to advance in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
So here comes Game 7 for the Miami Heat now, here comes everything for a franchise fighting to hold off the Indiana Pacers and advancing age, fighting to hold off 2014 free agency and a forever feeling of failure should they let this series – and maybe this entire era – slip away.
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