MIAMI – You remember those blank stares the Miami Heat wore last season as they walked off the floor here, losers to the Dallas Mavericks on their home floor in Game 6 of The 2011 Finals? We all do. There was Chris Bosh breaking down on his way the Heat locker room. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade exited the floor in stunned disbelief at what had just transpired.
What you didn’t see were the notes the Heat’s Big 3 took after that, when the sting eased up a bit and they dove back into those tapes and retraced their missteps from The Finals so they would not be repeated again.
The late-game struggles, the inability to control their emotions with games on the line and the need to be respectful of and resilient against a foe capable of doing to them what they’d done to the competition all season long were all highlighted in the notebook.
All those lessons came rushing back to the Heat Sunday night in the third quarter with the Oklahoma City Thunder leading by 10 points and on the verge of sending the Heat into a tailspin. They didn’t crack this time. They settled themselves, measured the Thunder and then pounced as Oklahoma City unraveled down the stretch.
Their 91-85 win in Game 3 won’t be remembered as a thing of beauty, or anything close to it — the Heat shot a despicable 38 percent (28-for-74) from the floor and wobbled themselves at times late (nine fourth quarter turnovers of their own), allowing the Thunder yet another chance to steal the game in the closing minute.
But they held on again, same as they did in their Game 2 win in Oklahoma City. And this time it might turn out to be the watershed moment for the Heat, who maintained their composure long enough to take control of this series at 2-1 with Games 4 and 5 here at American Airlines Arena on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
A 17-3 run late in the third quarter helped them turn that 10-point deficit into a lead heading into the fourth quarter and an 8-0 fourth quarter run helped them close the Thunder out, although they did have to hold on in the frantic final two minutes.
“I think before we used to just freak out about what happened and really just staying with the past,” Bosh said. “You have to have a quick memory in this business. They’re a very good team. They’re going to make some runs sometimes. It’s all about how you respond. And I think we responded very well, and we just have to continue to do that because sometimes you’re going to be behind … it’s not going to be easy. We keep that in mind, and we were fortunate enough to go on those runs to kind of give ourselves a little bit of a cushion.”
A little bit of a cushion is all it was.
When you shoot just 5-for-31 outside of the paint, 10-for-30 in the second half and need all 31 of the free throws they made (they shot 35) to survive, you recognize right away that you did not just complete a masterpiece.
That’s another lesson the Heat learned last year: aesthetics mean nothing.
All that matters is that you win.
And they found a way to do that this time.
It’s a quality that has been ingrained in this team, the byproduct of their past experiences, their failures.
“We know, we bring it up,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the warnings needed when his team trails by a sizable margin the way they did in the third quarter. “But we’re not imploring them the way we used to have to in the past. Our guys understand it’s a long game, and are resolved to win in different ways and be able to hang around and get enough stops. We knew. We weren’t in a great flow there. They stepped up their defense. They have great shot-makers, got into a rhythm. But we were able to hang around, make enough plays and it became a real ballgame in the fourth [quarter].”
This Heat team thrives in “real ballgames” now, a year after crumbling under the pressure in the same such games.
The lessons have been learned.