|Once again, LeBron James and the Heat win on the road with their backs against the wall. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Miami Heat's mantra, repeated ad nauseum, is to never get too high or too low. The concept couldn't be simpler: poise must be permanent, regardless of the surroundings, regardless of the scoreboard, regardless of the media screeching.
In these playoffs, the Heat have made things more difficult than they need to be, they've had inconsistent contributions from their bench players, they've struggled to get truly quality production from Dwyane Wade on a night-to-night basis and they've managed -- really, over-managed -- the injury and rehabilitation of Chris Bosh.
Even given all of those extenuating circumstances, the Heat have made one thing clear: they have played their best basketball when their backs are pressed firmly against the wall, in unfriendly environs, when losing would mean an insurmountable series deficit or elimination.
Three times now in these playoffs the Heat have faced a game on the road that would have -- either definitely or all but certainly -- meant the end of their season. Three times they emerged with signature victories.
"This postseason and everything we've been through has shown that this group has a resourcefulness, a resolve, a resiliency," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We're all a very stubborn group."
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Miami's first do-or-die win came during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat had just played two stinkers, failing to break 75 points in back-to-back losses to the Indiana Pacers during the immediate aftermath of Bosh's abdominal injury. The Pacers smelled blood, talking trash, picking fights and flashing choke signs, but the Heat didn't fall for any of it. Instead, they got a combined 70 points from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to even the series at two games apiece. Having avoided a 3-1 series deficit with the 101-93 victory, the Heat never looked back, winning Game 5 and Game 6 to slam the door and send the Pacers home.
The second came at TD Garden in Boston during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. With the Celtics leading the series 3-2 and holding a chance to close out the Heat at home, James delivered one of the best performances of his career, silencing a rabid crowd with 30 first half points, on the way to a monster 45-point night. The Heat evened the series that night with a 98-79 win and eliminated the Celtics 48 hours later.
The third came at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Thursday night, with the Heat dropping the Thunder 100-96. Sure, it was much earlier in the series than the previous two but that fact doesn't diminish the stakes in the slightest. There's no doubt: had the Oklahoma City Thunder come back from double digits twice to take a 2-0 lead in the 2012 NBA Finals, this series would have been over.
"It meant everything," James said of Miami's Game 2 win. "We had played too well in the first 36 minutes to let this one slip away from us."
The odds are so stacked against the road team in the 2-3-2 format, the mental battle that would have resulted from blowing two potential road wins, the difficulty of winning on the road against an overwhelming homecourt advantage and a deafening crowd in a Game 6 or 7, and the confidence boost that a late rally would have meant for the Thunder would simply have been too much to overcome. The Finals would have transformed into a "when, not if" reality for the Heat. The question would have been how long would they could prolong their death rather than whether they could pull the upset on the favored, deeper Thunder.
Like the two previous wins, Thursday's featured excellent play from James, who is the only reason this team's season didn't end weeks ago. He finished with 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but defined the game by his ability to get high-percentage looks. He shot 8-for-14 in the paint and got to the free throw line 12 times, pounding the Thunder possession after possession.
"For me, it's all about aggression," James explained. "I just try to get into the paint, make things happen, create for myself, create for others and put some pressure on the defense. For me, that's what my game is all built around."
"He's been doing it in so many different ways in this playoff run," Spoelstra said. "Sometimes it's been the rebounds, defensive plays, attacking the basket, big threes and he's at that point right now: whatever it takes."
This wasn't a one-man show. Wade was big too, scoring 24 points and adding five assists, breaking down the Thunder off the dribble on a number of occasions after facing some criticism for a lackluster Game 1. And, in his first start since returning from injury, Bosh scored 16 points and had 15 rebounds, a monster double-double that held negate Oklahoma City's length and size advantages. His presence in the starting lineup also helped Miami, who led wire-to-wire, build a 17-point first half lead.
"It was key," Wade said of Bosh's return as a starter after four games coming off the bench. "Having our best players on the floor early, especially when we needed to start off great."
Shane Battier was a major X-factor for the second straight game, scoring 17 points on 5-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc. His last three, a fallaway accidental banker that ended with him seated on the court at the 5:07 mark in the fourth, was crucial in staving off a fierce Thunder rally.
The reputation that hounds this Heat team -- and especially James -- is that they crumble in big moments. It's a knock that has carried over from their deflating and mysterious collapse against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals and was reinforced in Game 1, when the Thunder thoroughly outplayed them in the fourth quarter.
"We want to make enough plays to win basketball games," James concluded. "Not to answer any questions about what people have to say about us."
The knock won't go away until they win a title, nor should it. But on a night like this, even with such a long way to go in this series, there's a determination worthy of admiration. The Heat's roster is imbalanced, their bench is regularly useless and they don't have a center who can sniff the court. And yet they have made enough plays to stay alive this long.
Like it or not: nobody has dodged more bullets in trying times than Miami.