For no good reason, the Miami Heat chose the needlessly complicated path rather than the easy one.
Things couldn't have lined up better for the Eastern Conference's sole remaining title contender on Sunday night. Already up 3-0 in the first round playoff series, the Heat held multiple double-digit leads over the New York Knicks, an opponent that is less skilled, less disciplined, less healthy and, generally, less motivated. The Knicks were down two key guards thanks to knee injuries and they lost a third, Baron Davis, to a gruesome patella dislocation during the third quarter.
None of that stopped Miami from letting New York creep back into Game 4 over the course of the second half. And none of that stopped Miami from making an absolute mess of their final offensive possession, ensuring that New York would escape with an 89-87 victory and force a Game 5 in Miami on Wednesday.
"it's not ideal but it is the deal," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team's predicament. "We have to own it."
At the top of the "owing it" list was the confounding final possession that saw forward LeBron James standing in the left corner as guard Dwyane Wade dribbled out the clock, unable to generate a clean look, before lofting a fallaway, contested turnaround 3-pointer that rimmed off at the buzzer.
That James wasn't more directly involved in the action is inexplicable. Game 4 wasn't his finest overall night -- 9-for-21 shooting and 5 turnovers -- but he finished with a team-high 27 points and scored eight of Miami's final 10 points, dishing to Wade for the other two. That run included a deep three to tie the game with 1:15 to go and a near-impossible and-one lay-up that fouled out Knicks center Tyson Chandler with 20 seconds remaining.
And yet, down two with 13 seconds remaining, the ball went to Wade on a high screen-and-roll with forward Chris Bosh. Including Bosh was curious, given that he shot 4-for-10 and had just committed a careless turnover, throwing a pass to no one that resulted in a backcourt violation. But there he was, setting a screen that didn't free Wade but did force a switch. Bosh cut to the hoop without getting open, leaving Wade to take Amar'e Stoudemire one-on-one into the paint. James said after the game that forcing this switch was the play's design, as the Heat hoped to isolate Wade on Stoudemire, whose reputation as a weak defender has been well-cultivated.
The plan fell apart very quickly. Wade wound up driving directly at Bosh, who was trying to get early positioning for a potential offensive rebound, and Knicks wing Landry Fields, who had switched onto him. Their presence created a vacuum of space, turning the possession into a nightmare scenario, as Wade now faced two longer, taller defenders with less than five seconds remaining on the clock. In the muck, Fields was able to switch back onto Wade, negating the original switch, and then stuck with him as he embarked on his retreat to the 3-poine line. Fields contested the shot without fouling, and Wade came up empty. There was never an opportunity for a rebound: time expired as the shot caromed off.
"It looked like Dwyane had an opportunity to get into the paint," Spoelstra said. "I think he lost his handle, it became a broken play at that point. [The Knicks] made enough big plays and big shots down the stretch so we have to move on."
Not quite. The sequence was "broken" long before Wade reversed course at the last moment to head back for the perimeter. It was broken as soon as the plan revolved around purposefully neutering James, the NBA's most explosive offensive weapon, for no good reason.
As Wade probed, James stood in the corner, defended by Carmelo Anthony, ready to receive an outlet pass that never came. Spoelstra said that James was a "possible trigger" on the play but obviously it never came to that. As Wade's attempt missed, James turned from the rim in frustration, knowing that a needless Game 5, rather than a few extra days of rest, was now in his future.
Despite the Hail Mary end result and the inexplicable loss, James didn't second-guess Wade's decision-making or the play's results.
"I felt like he got into the lane, he had a good look initially, he ended up dribbling out for a three that's he's made before but it just didn't go for us," James said. "For me personally, I would have loved to have the ball but as a team we win games together and lose games together. That's all that matters."
The play breakdown matters and it doesn't. It doesn't matter whatsoever in the short-term. The depleted Knicks, clearly the weakest team in this year's playoffs, are ill-suited to mount a historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the series. In all likelihood, Miami slams the door on Wednesday night and this hiccup is forgotten, at least until the next time the Heat find themselves in a similar situation.
Bigger picture, though, the play stands as a potential red flag. Wade's foray was ill-conceived, indecisive, ineffective and, in the end, desperate. The Heat, with all their weapons, can, should and must do better.
At least they owned it.