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MIAMI – Everyone keeps probing and probing these Miami Heat in the playoffs, waiting for an old vulnerability, an old insecurity, to creep into the final minutes. Someone stumble, someone relapse. Something. Suddenly, LeBron James(notes) is dribbling past Shawn Marion(notes) and measuring the leap over Tyson Chandler(notes) for a dunk, and a voice rises within the 7-footer’s mind and says: Get me out of here.
Chandler bails, ducks out of the way, and soon the scoreboard says something that comes out of nowhere, delivering demoralization to these Dallas Mavericks: Down 10 points, down a game in the NBA Finals.
Down and out to the hellacious Heat, 92-84 in Game 1.
Once, these fourth quarters were an albatross for the Heat, a sluggish death march of ghosts and goblins. Once, these Heat were paralyzed with uncertainty, with uneasy glances between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade(notes). Now, those memories of failures are nothing but fortification for these Heat.
They’re running on a fearsome blend of ferocious defense and spectacular shot-making in fourth quarters. This is everyone’s worst nightmare in the NBA come to life. Together, James and Wade had 46 points, 19 rebounds and 11 assists. Chris Bosh(notes) had 19 points and nine rebounds. The Heat’s stars come hard, come unforgiving and come again and again.
Pity poor Dirk Nowitzki(notes), who suddenly could be playing the Finals straight man again. After 27 excruciating points, Nowitzki marched to his interview podium, held up his left hand and revealed a swollen finger with a bandage wrapped tightly. He tore a tendon in his off-hand, and everything gets harder for the Mavericks now. The way the Heat defended the Mavericks, the way they took away Dirk’s supporting cast one by one, Jason Terry(notes) and J.J. Barea(notes) and Peja Stojakovic(notes).
James played problem-solver for Miami, moving onto Terry, and Nowitzki and shutting down scorers, squeezing shooters wherever he exerted himself. From the Chicago Bulls to the Dallas Mavericks now, the pattern is unmistakable. The Heat's defense is where MVPs – past and present – come to get swallowed up, spit out and left feeling like they’re all alone on the floor. There are no excuses for the Mavericks to get beaten so badly on the boards, including 16-6 on the offensive end. No excuses to get beaten to so many loose balls. To beat Miami now, to hold back three stars in their primes, those are necessities.
Opportunity’s fleeting against the Heat. How else do you combat James’ most momentous of plays? With the clock ticking down to end the third, James dribbled down the seconds, stepping back and lofting an off-balance 3-pointer as his body nearly carried him out of bounds. He had gone deep three times without a miss in the third, and this was his statement about what awaited the Mavericks, about how everything this night – this season – had been a prelude to these ferocious fourth quarters.
“We always said we would figure it out,” James said. “We have guys that have closed games before. We just had to figure out how to do it together. We’ve done it by ourselves. Those pitfalls early in the season have helped us to get where we are now in the postseason.”
Where the Heat are is within three victories of an NBA championship, within three victories of the beginning of pure domination and pure hell for everyone else. Five years ago, the NBA Finals turned for the Heat when Wade began to impose his will on Dallas and four straight victories would soon belong to him.
This time, Wade had to laugh when Game 1 was over. Yes, LeBron James is the MVP of these playoffs, but on the final night of May, in maybe the final days until he can again call himself a champion, Wade had a message for his running mate.
“He congratulated me after the game on my first Finals victory,” James said.
The sweep to the San Antonio Spurs was a distant memory, a too young star playing with too modest of a supporting cast with Cleveland in 2007. Everything’s changing now. Everything’s aligning. Yes, everyone keeps probing these Miami Heat, praying for regressions, praying for something gone to resurrect itself again.
Midnight came on Tuesday, the calendar turned and wouldn’t you know it: June’s here, and LeBron James and these Miami Heat are creeping closer to self-proclaimed and self-ordained championship destiny.
All those failures have washed away, cleansing these Heat of the season’s original sins. Suddenly this basketball season has become the sums of everyone’s worst fears.