|Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat face elimination in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics on Thursday. (Getty Images)|
MIAMI -- Questions don't get much more direct than those asked of the Miami Heat in their practice gym on Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after a demoralizing Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
Erik Spoelstra, are you being out-coached? Chris Bosh, do you think there will be roster repercussions if you fail to win a title this season? LeBron James, do you let the memories of recent losses to the Celtics get into your head? Dwyane Wade, is this season a failure if you don't win a title?
The Heat have heard these questions before, and they knew they would be in for another round after falling behind the Celtics in the series 3-2, with a potential close-out Game 6 set for TD Garden on Thursday night.
Entering the finals, Miami said the right things about respecting their opponent. But they expected to win this series, perhaps fairly easily, just as they won in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals on their way to a Finals berth. The Boston team they were facing had just struggled to get past a No. 8 seed in seven games and didn't seem too have enough offensive octane to keep up. That sentiment was only reinforced by a strong Miami Game 1 victory.
Since the, the Celtics have controlled the series, pushing the Heat to overtime in Game 2 and winning the next three games. Miami is searching for answers and Wade admitted it last night. They simply didn't expect to be in this position, facing elimination on the road, at the TD Garden, where they are 1-7 during the Big 3 era.
"This is still a series," Spoelstra said on Wednesday. "Make no mistake about that."
It won't be a series for much longer unless Miami pulls itself together in dramatic fashion.
That starts with LeBron James, who was invisible during an 8-minute stretch of the fourth quarter in Game 5. For multiple possessions, he remained in the corner or on the baseline on offense, often bent over at the waist and tugging his shorts. Wade attempted to handle the load by himself, but a 1-on-5 approach will never work against this trapping, zoning, aggressively helping, rim-protecting Celtics defense.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to come through for our team," James said. "Last night I felt like I could have made a couple more plays, and I didn't."
The Heat have taken a one-for-all and all-for-one approach since forming the Big 3, partly to foster a championship culture on an obviously top-heavy roster and partly to help tune out a massive legion of critics.
"I don't think anybody is turning on their TV or opening up a newspaper to let it in," Spoelstra said. "We're all disciplined enough to compartmentalize and focus on the challenge that we have ahead of us."
But forward Chris Bosh, just returned from an abdominal injury, made a point to stick up for James, whose passive play down the stretch of Game 5 drew another round of criticism.
"Guys have to realize it's a team sport," he said. "It's not just one thing. They can't throw LeBron in the pot and be like, 'What is it with him?' He had 40 points and [Cleveland] got eliminated back in . This is a team sport. He's going to do what he's supposed to do, and we're going to do what we're supposed to do. And we're going to do it together. You can't just single him out. People need to stop doing that."
Of course, James was the voice of the "not three, not four, not five" rally, he's the reigning NBA MVP, he's the biggest name in the sport, and he's now 27-years-old and one loss from missing out on another ring. James is the face of Miami's great expectations and, despite Bosh's best wishes, he is the recipient of the pressure.
"I put a lot on myself, like I do any game," James said. "I do a lot for the team. I hold myself to a high standard. So I want to play well. I want to play well for sure. I'm not going to put too much pressure saying these are the numbers I'm going to get. I'm going to go out and play my game. At the end of the day we'll see what happens."
Thursday's stakes are the highest of the season and familiar ones for James, who was eliminated by the Celtics in 2008 and 2010 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I know how much pain this team has given me over the years," he admitted. "I guess it's only right that we will be going up there in an elimination game. In order for us to keep our season going, we have to win in their building."
And if they don't? A Pandora's box of possible changes and rumors would open wide immediately. Spoelstra, in particular, would find himself the subject of criticism given that an exit in the Eastern Conference finals would represent regression rather than progress from last year. He's juggled line-ups as his team has struggled to find a rhythm on offense and played poor defense, especially during Games 3 and 4. He was dealt a bad hand with the timing of Bosh's injury, no doubt, but critics will still point to the presence of James and Wade as reason enough Miami should advance from the East after Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL.
"My focus isn't on the individual coaching match-up," Spoelstra said, smiling but wincing slightly when asked if Celtics coach Doc Rivers had out-coached him so far in the series. "Doc is a great coach. He's a championship coach. We all like this challenge."
"I mean, he's our coach," James said. "I don't need to defend him. I'm here. We got a lot of respect for Spo. We have all the confidence he's going to give us a game plan to help us win."
The Heat's stars projected calm earlier in this series, especially after going up 2-0, but an urgency has set in. Not panic, but an urgency that's probably natural with the possibility of summer starting Friday morning.
"People on the outside look and think it's easy," Bosh said of pursuing a title. "It's not. It's the most difficult thing you have to do as a professional. We're finding that out right now. We're in this situation right now. We're going into Boston, one of the toughest places to play in the world. We have to win. Just to have another shot at another elimination game."
Bosh stretched out the words "have... to... win" for emphasis, underscoring the win-or-go-home nature of the game. But the sentiment is bigger than the series, even if none of the Heat players and coaches want to address that reality right now.
Miami is now operating under a new collective bargaining agreement that makes it more difficult to fill out a rotation around three near-max players. Miami is still heavily relying on Wade, who has looked older than his 30 years for stretches of the playoffs. Miami's roster is still based on a model that keeps them one injury to a key player away from disaster. Miami still has yet to find a way to sync up James, Wade and Bosh in perfect harmony. (Indeed, all three of the other Conference finalists -- Boston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City arguably have better fitting "Big 3" combinations.) Miami is still lacking both size and reliable big-game perimeter shooting.
"I'm only playing for championships, man," Wade concluded, before heading to the Heat's plane to Boston. "You don't know how many opportunities you're going to get to play for a championship or compete for a championship. At this time, especially in my career, I play these games for championships. I don't play the game for statistics or individual awards. I said it earlier in the year: For us, it's championship or bust."
When Wade said it earlier in the year, it was merely theoretical. Now, the bust potential is no longer just an idea. It's a very, very real and immediate possibility.