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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Win or lose, Heat's trial by Finals good for everyone

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As Dirk Nowitzki made his way to the interview room, he passed a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair in the hallway of the arena. It was Micky Arison, the owner of the Heat. Arison gazed up at the Mavericks' 7-foot giant, the giant of these star-studded Finals, and quickly averted his eyes without saying a word.

Pat Riley, his hair slicked back and his championship dreams temporarily imperiled, stood in a corner a few feet from the interview room. Riley, architect of Miami's unprecedented free-agent coup last summer, would make the long, slow, painful walk out of the American Airlines Center -- out into the humid Dallas night -- to confront the ultimate test of his considerable powers.

To win their first title together, Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will have to work for it. (Getty Images)  
To win their first title together, Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will have to work for it. (Getty Images)  
An 11-month journey, the likes of which the NBA has never seen, has come to this: The Heat, with their trinity of talent and rock-star existence, must now earn the championship they were built to win. It was never going to be easy, they've told us since they were humbled by a 9-8 start, internal strife and losing streaks that became national obsessions. There were the TMZ headlines, the Erik Spoelstra watch, and LeBump -- when LeBron James' collision with Spoelstra fueled speculation that they were seriously at odds. There was quasi-investigative reporting over Chris Bosh's marriage license and Zapruder-like breakdown of James uttering an offensive word during one of his cutesy little co-news conferences with Dwyane Wade.

Every misstep was magnified, every triumph dissected for hidden meanings. Now, 11 months, 101 games and 14 playoff victories later, the Heat need a two-game home winning streak to reach their goal -- the goal so boldly stated at their victory celebration back in July. There will be no store-bought title for the Heat in Year 1 of this star-studded experiment. The first of the multiple championships they'd laid claim to last summer will either be earned or squandered, not taken with ease. "The good thing about life and the good thing about this game is, we get another opportunity," Wade said after the Heat fell into a 3-2 hole in the Finals with a 112-103 loss to the Mavs in Game 5. "Another crack at it."

And you know what? This is good. It is good for the NBA that the store-bought stars will have to work for their title, good for James and Wade that they are not already celebrating a championship nearly everyone thought -- no, feared -- was a foregone conclusion. It is good for other teams that stole Miami's blueprint -- before finding out if it would actually work -- to understand that pairing two of the best basketball players on Earth doesn't guarantee you anything except pressure, scrutiny and your own fascinating orbit in the basketball cosmos.

It's good for teams that hoped against hope that you can still win in this recalibrated NBA with a team that plays together and fits together, not necessarily just one that dominates the ball and the headlines.

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"This is uncharted territory for us," Bosh said, "but all year has been uncharted territory for us since we came together. So we're going to have to use all of those experiences that we've been through in this past year collectively to overcome this."

Is it possible? Of course it is. The Mavs aren't shooting 57 percent in Miami's building, where they shot 37 percent in losing Game 1. They're not shooting 68 percent (13 for 19) from the 3-point line there, either. They did both those things Thursday night at home, and still, it was a one-possession game -- 102-100 Dallas -- with 2:45 left.

Historically feasible? Yes again -- although history doesn't really apply to the Heat because no team has ever tried front-loading its roster with three of the five best available free agents and gone about chasing a title. But just for reference, the Lakers went home in a 3-2 hole against Boston last June and won both games to capture the championship. It's been done two other times in the 26 Finals under the 2-3-2 format adopted in 1985 -- by the '88 Lakers against the Pistons and by the '94 Rockets against the Knicks.

"It's something we know we can do," James said. "We've just got to push through it. At this point, we have no choice, honestly. We've got two games left, and we worked hard all year to get home-court advantage. So we have to take advantage of it."

The Heat have been tested by the Mavs like they've been tested by no other opponent. Now, their fascinating journey comes to an end under the blinding glare of a spotlight unlike any they've experienced. Traveling home to Miami on Friday, the team destined to win multiple championships flew into a headwind like none they've ever seen -- a 40-hour period of anticipation and anxiety that will frame how this ends and how they'll ultimately be viewed.

And you know what? This is good. This is good for the NBA, good for the Heat, and good for the two friends and future Hall of Famers who decided so many months ago that this would be a good idea. The team and its two biggest stars, John and Paul of the Heatles who so often could do no right, can't really lose now.

If they fall short, it will only strengthen their resolve and activate empathy among NBA fans who like to see a struggle before the apex is reached. If they win, it will only add to the accomplishment and enhance their image, because fighting for a championship is far more appealing than waltzing to one.

Either way, they have captivated us, entertained us and left us wondering what happens next -- made us crave the next moment, the next scene, because spectacular failure or an improbable comeback were always the two most fascinating outcomes in this incomparable show.

What a show it's been. And it only gets better.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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