I don't doubt that the Miami Heat have a killer instinct, or whatever cliché we need to define what a championship team needs to accomplish its goals. We've seen that team take over series and push through in the NBA Finals against an incredible opponent to hoist the trophy. This team is better than last year's squad and the field ahead of them might be weaker than we saw last season.
We've seen the Heat respond to adversity as well. We saw it all throughout this series against the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls replicated in Game 1 what we saw in late March when they snapped the historic win streak the Heat were powering through. They slapped at the Heat, they pushed the Heat, and they outplayed the Heat. In Game 2, Miami responded with a blowout victory in spectacular fashion. They refused to get sucked into the physical play that took away from the basketball they were trying to execute out there. The Heat held their heads above the fray and showed that you couldn't beat up their talent enough to break the process.
When Miami had a chance to put to rest any thoughts of Chicago making it a series with a win in either Game 3 or Game 4, LeBron James and company went into Chicago and tore down the United Center. They left zero doubt about who was going to win this series, making the outcome a mere formality. It's the kind of response you want to see from a team with title aspirations, from a team that is looking to repeat.
In Game 5, it looked like the Heat were ready to put the nail in the coffin for Nate Robinson and his scrappy teammates. They jumped out to a 22-4 lead early on, showing little mercy or respect for Chicago's abilities as a competitor. It looked like the victory was going to be easy and you could see Miami's play let up and relax into what it felt was going to be an obvious win. It was that letup, that mentality that nearly cost them the game and an extra day or two of rest.
This isn't a flaw that necessarily prevents them from winning the title this season. We saw this from Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers teams during their heyday. We've seen this from the Detroit Pistons when Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace were fueling their run. We've seen this from the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce version of the Boston Celtics since their Big Three came together. Great teams almost can't help themselves from taking their collective foot off the pedal.
Maybe the only time we didn't see this consistently was during the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat.
When the Bulls got back into Game 5 and eventually took the lead, the Heat had to respond -- and they did. They clawed back into the game, played better basketball down the stretch, and found a way to survive for the home victory. They did what they needed to do to move on. Maybe it's just picking nits to find fault in this five-game series, but it should act as a good reminder to the Heat of what can happen when you stop pushing at this point in the playoffs.
The amount of mental focus and exhaustion caused by going 110 percent all game long, especially in this playoff environment, is unfair to expect from a team. There are going to be ups and downs because this is when a team like Miami will face the best competition possible with the most intensity saturating the games. Miami showed it can respond to adversity, which is great.
But should this Heat team be able to avoid adversity? Shouldn't they be able to avoid adverse situations this often? In the next round against the Indiana Pacers (or hey, maybe the New York Knicks can figure it out!), this Heat team will be facing the best defense in the league and a rebounding monster with Indiana's frontline. They won't really be able to afford getting sucked into adversity. They won't be able to take their feet off the accelerator without facing severe consequences.
A team with the goals of being repeat champions needs to learn this lesson before it can get truly hurt by it. The Bulls weren't healthy enough to consistently hurt the Heat with this kind of stuff. But the Pacers will be. If not them, either the Grizzlies or the Spurs or the Warriors or maybe even the Thunder could have enough to make them pay for mental lapses.
We know the Heat can respond and that they're good enough to win a title in the face of adversity. But you can't just bank on that coming through every time. Sometimes, you have to create separation and never let it dwindle.