CHICAGO – After the Miami Heat had marched into the losing locker room, a silent, sobering march through the corridors of the United Center, Pat Riley would be waiting with that familiar, fabled declaration that originated in the glory days of the Showtime Lakers. The emperor of Miami had little left to lean on but that old, worn playoff premise that a series doesn't start until the home team loses.
Riles was reaching. These Heat haven't looked like champions since that parade down Biscayne Boulevard in late June. Now, they're trying to reclaim something that sure looks like it's going, going, gone. As much as they're trying to tell everyone that they can beat these Chicago Bulls down two games to nothing, it sure sounds like they're mostly trying to sell themselves.
"We've been here before, know what I'm saying?" Alonzo Mourning insisted later Tuesday night after a humiliating 107-89 Game 2 loss to the Bulls. "We've been here before, and I've got the utmost confidence in this team to pick ourselves back up."
This is the frightening part for Miami, the way that the Heat are convincing themselves on a belief that changing fortune is merely a matter of changing courts against Chicago. Yes, they have been here before, having been down 2-0 to Dallas in the NBA finals, but they're lying to themselves to think that they've been here before because that Miami squad played at a higher plane and earned the right to believe it could still be a champion.
The Heat went back to Miami for Game 3 in last year's finals with a sound Dwyane Wade at the top of his talent and with a driven, determined roster of role players desperate to be champions. "I don't know if our team is in the frame of mind that they were then, or that kind of playoff condition," Riley confessed.
Maybe these Heat can get back into the series, but they won't win it. The Bulls are destroying them. So far, Miami is helpless to stop Chicago's burgeoning stars, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. These two are getting shots wherever they want them. It isn't just that the Bulls couldn't miss on Tuesday night, that Deng and Gordon made 22 of 38, that as a team they made 11 of 17 three-pointers, that the Heat were forever a step behind chasing the pass and, ultimately, standing stupefied as the shots snapped through the net.
"What do you do when they're hitting them from 25 feet?" Jason Kapono asked. "They were just on fire."
It isn't just the torrid touch of Chicago, but also a resolve to chase every loose ball, to keep alive rebounds, to pound the boards. The Heat are missing block-outs and constantly allowing penetration into the paint that typically turns into a drive-and-kick for an open shot.
Between Games 1 and 2, Riley had spoken of a sense of entitlement that had overtaken his team. So, on the locker room board, Riley had one of his assistants write, "Get our hands dirty." Down below, it read, "Put your noses through loose balls," and "Make them feel us." Miami would fail with every one of the coach's ultimatums.
All along, the fear of keeping these Heat together, unchanged, was what's happening now: They've lost the edge. Jason Williams has been dreadful. Antoine Walker still plays like he's all by himself. Mourning had one rebound in 11 minutes. Riley should've gone to Kapono sooner, as the shooter has been as consistent of a sub as Miami has had all season.
Nevertheless, the Heat's redemption will resonate with Shaquille O'Neal and Wade. They are the still responsible for the repeat, and so far, they're staggering through this series.
Shaq and Wade were shockingly sloppy with the ball, the two superstars committing a combined 14 turnovers. When it was over, Wade insisted that he's getting closer to his old self, that it won't be long now. He has been good and tough to return so quickly from that separated shoulder, to hustle back for the playoffs when he should've had surgery, but he isn't himself. Without his best, you can't give even give Miami a puncher's chance. Maybe he magically returns in South Florida, and this turns into a series. Right now, it's hard to see it.
Shaq is still dismissing the Bulls, insisting, "They're the same team from last year." Deep down, he knows it isn't true. They're older, better and sharper, and Ben Wallace gives them muscle and maturity. Desperate to break through for the franchise's first playoff series victory since Michael Jordan nine years ago, Chicago is playing with a ferocity, a fearlessness, that is a joy to watch.
"I think one of the best things that happened for the Bulls was that they lost in New Jersey and that pissed them off," Riley said of the Heat's season-ending defeat that cost them the No. 2 seed. "Their effort is born out of that kind of adversity."
Here's where Shaq is wrong: He thinks Chicago is the same team, and so are his Heat. Only, Miami hasn't shown it. This has been a long, troubling season for the champs. They've come and gone without interest, including Riley, who bailed on them when the grind of losing without Shaq sent him on a sabbatical. All along, Miami wanted to believe that it could get it together in the playoffs, get out the rust and make a run in these playoffs.
Instead, the Heat go back to Miami on Friday night holding out hope that the Bulls' immaturity creeps into Game 3. It's a long shot, considering the way Chicago didn't engage in self-congratulations and glad-handing. "They're a team that can win four in a row," Gordon said.
Right now, the Heat need to win one. They need to win Friday night. That's all. A year ago, Miami never needed to blink when Dallas had the Heat down in the finals. Different team, different season. Truth be told, it was a different Dwyane Wade.
"The bottom line is that we're world champions," Mourning sniffed in the locker room. "If we lose at home, then come back and talk to me and I'll tell you that we're in trouble. But until then …"
Until then, the Heat are holding onto history.
It feels like that's all they've got right now.