MIAMI – Phi Slamma South Beach had rained down another 3-pointer, Dwyane Wade(notes) this time. Miami was up 15, about to be up 2-0 in the NBA Finals, about to all but start the victory parade down here. Seven minutes and change remained and LeBron James(notes) came charging over to Wade, who was holding his post-release pose in the air in front of the Dallas Mavericks' bench. Soon James was throwing jabs at Wade’s chest in celebration, and the entire Finals spun on the Heat’s preening.
“I don’t think it’s an issue,” LeBron James said.
The Heat had come so far, so fast, and now here was the moment when it all came unglued, when they went right back to their worst tendencies. Oblivious. Cocky. Just unnecessary. When they play hard they reach seemingly unattainable heights. When they think things will be easy, even for just a moment, they can crater out with unfathomable fury.
One ill-timed congratulatory act didn’t just light a fire under a Mavericks team that was fading fast. The Heat fueled the blaze with a final seven-minute horror show of ugly offense, worse defense and mental mistakes after fundamental breakdowns. Dallas closed on a 22-5 run, sucker-punching the dazed, confused Heat, 95-93 to even the series 1-1 Thursday night.
“We gave them, and they gave themselves, life,” Wade said.
Perhaps worst of all, Miami didn’t even know what it had done. Dance? Disrespect? Wade and James were unaware. When the celebration was first broached in a postgame news conference, LeBron shot Dwyane a look.
What Miami couldn’t remember, Dallas couldn’t forget.
“It was no celebration at all,” James said, unwilling to acknowledge the comments pouring out of the Mavericks' locker room. “I was excited about the fact that [Wade] hit a big shot, and we went up 15. The same thing we’ve done over the course of the season. There was no celebration at all. We knew we had seven minutes to go still to close out the game.”
“There was no celebration,” Wade said. “It was a shot made going into a timeout. Every team does something. That’s the game. … That’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time."
This was the worst possible way for the Heat to lose, and you could hear it in the postgame defiance. It was back to the Heat worrying about critics, worrying about slights and criticism and fighting waste-of-time battles when their focus would be best served on stopping Dirk Nowitzki(notes).
“As far as celebration, that word has been used with us all year,” James said.
“Don’t make nothing out of that celebration like you guys did in the Boston series,” Wade said.
If there’s one thing that you can count on, people are going to make a great deal out of that “celebration.” Between now and Sunday’s Game 3, the subject will be pounded to a pulp.
The truth: It was relatively tame by NBA standards. This isn’t the standard situation, though. Dallas is a prideful team with a recent history of storming back and closing out games – down 12 at Portland, down 16 at the Los Angeles Lakers, down 15 at Oklahoma City. You get up on the Mavericks and you look to stick a stake through their heart, not slap them awake.
And this isn’t just any old regular-season night, it’s Game 2 of the NBA Finals, with a critical victory and near insurmountable lead right in the Heat’s grip. It was time to be cautious. Time to lay low. Instead the Heat dared to taunt the Mavericks – or at least dared to not even consider that they might be taunting the Mavericks.
“It really was disheartening to us,” Terry said. “… [I] looked specifically at Dirk and said, ‘There’s no way we’re going out like this.’ ”
This was a shell-shocking loss for the Heat, the kind that has crushed teams in the Finals before. Yet, there was little outward panic. Maybe they're confident. Maybe they're clueless. The series will tell.
The Heat’s Game 2 scouting report led with bold type and a simple, pleading message: “Approach your day with tenacity.” For nearly 42 minutes they had done just that. Then they didn't. In the wake of that collapse, in the postgame locker room, Wade and James and others took turns reaffirming the pregame message, recalling the regular-season struggles that hardened them into a playoff force.
The story of the Heat has been their ability to reload across the season. There’s never been anything quite like this, though, and they’d be naïve not to understand that. When things go great for Miami it's a sight to see, the greatest show on hardwood. When it breaks bad there are losing streaks and hung heads and questions abound.
There’s no time to search for answers, only to find them before three deafening games in Dallas.
The blame was everywhere. On the players. On the effort. On the rookie head coach.
Why did Wade, who was brilliant to the tune of 36 points, get just two shots the final seven minutes? (“I’ll have to look,” said coach Erik Spoelstra). Why did the offense stall, too often leaving LeBron dribbling around aimlessly until just before the shot clock was set to go off? (“We just weren’t in good rhythm,” James said.) Where was the Heat’s vaunted defense as the Mavs began lighting them up in the furious stretch run? (“A lack of execution,” Spoelstra said.)
With a foul to give why didn’t they hack Nowitzki on the final play? (“Mental breakdown,” Wade said.) Why did they put Chris Bosh(notes) and not Udonis Haslem(notes) on Dirk? (“Yeah, that’s a tough one,” Spoelstra said.) Why didn’t they double? (“It was just bad defense for me,” Bosh said.)
And why in the world, after that big 3-pointer, did James and Wade not just jog back to their bench before honoring their brilliance?
“First of all, every team in the league when they go on a run they do something,” Wade said. “Whether it’s a signal, whether it’s a chest bump. It’s part of the game of basketball. A celebration is confetti, champagne bottles.”
He’s not wrong, but it's not his opinion that matters. The wronged get to define the wrong.
“If it pumped them up, they won the game. Obviously, it did something,” Wade said.
“It’s a ballgame now,” James said.
This is the Heat. Emotional. Energetic. Daring to the point of celebrating too soon in the face of the Mavericks; unknowingly picking them up off the canvas and right back into these NBA Finals.