CLEVELAND – Spillage on the floor. Fan on the floor. Remarkable on the floor.
The Miami Heat, in a clawback worthy of Bernie Madoff prosecutors, scrambled back from looming defeat Wednesday at The Q with a 98-95 victory that pushed their consecutive winning streak to 24 games.
To get there, the Heat entertained, delighted, tormented and ultimately conflicted the sellout crowd at LeBron James‘ former house. Their old hero from Akron did once again – 25 points, 12, rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, two blocks – what he had do so many times before on that court. But James was doing it to them rather than for them. Eventually the crowd settled into an audible pattern of booing his touches, cheering his highlights.
Afterward, though, Miami knew it had flirted again with failure. The streak had survived, but at a cost of so much effort and energy and desperation that legit doubts have been raised about its prognosis, nine short of matching and 10 short of breaking the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ 41-year-old record. In Game 5, on Day 7, at the end of a two-nation, two-time zone road trip, this was not what the Heat needed.
“It’s not a safe way to try to survive with this streak,” Shane Battier said, his feet submerged in ice water when it should have been his trigger finger cooling down. Battier’s three 3-pointers in the third quarter “kick-started,” James said, their team’s breathtaking comeback.
Down 67-40 – 67-40 – with barely seven minutes left in the period, Miami relied on hero shots by Battier, then Ray Allen and then James to catch and pass the Cavaliers. The Heat did it in a whoosh! – closing the gap completely in a span of about nine minutes. Inside the arena, the sounds from the stands added a nervous murmur; Cleveland players grew hesitant, with heavy legs and a hitch in their game that hadn’t been there moments earlier.
From the Cavs’ fattest lead to their deepest hole, they got outscored 58-28 by the defending champions. Stunning, sure. But it was gut-wrenching for Miami, too. James played 42 minutes. Dwyane Wade 38 and Chris Bosh 35. If they were going to try to win the game with one half tied behind their backs, they should have nailed down the first and sat through the second.
“It’s great that we showed resolve and heart, but we have to play better,” Battier said. “We have to play better from the first quarter. That’s the good news. We’ve won however many in a row and we still have room for improvement.”
That’s a half-full interpretation. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew his bag of coaching tricks was about empty when they saw that 27-point problem.
“At first I didn’t know what to say to our guys,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve been in games like that on the other side of it … What happened there in the third quarter wasn’t necessarily a designed offense, it was just those guys being great and making big shots.”
Battier recently talked about the 22-game winning streak he was part of in Houston in 2007-08 and how a draining performance in No. 22 left the Rockets staggered for the one that ended it. Now Miami has stacked up two such games in 48 hours, thanks to scraping through the draining, down-17 victory at Boston Monday. At this rate, it won’t take Chicago (in what could be No. 28 of the streak) or San Antonio (No. 30) to end it; after what the Cavs almost did, the Pistons, Bobcats and Magic ought to be emboldened. This is going to get harder before it’s over, or it might just get over.
“It’s been two games in a row where we got off to the type of start that we didn’t want to,” Spoelstra said. “That’s because we’ve been playing on our heels and catching teams [playing] more aggressive. [It took] some embarrassing minutes and down 27 for us to change our position.”
What would have been a memorable night in Cleveland might end up as a forgettable performance elsewhere for Miami. You almost think they’d be better off staring straight at the streak, admitting that it matters and going hard after it for its own sake. Sneaking up on it like it’s a happy by-product of “the process” is catching up with them.
“When we so-called flip a switch,” Battier said, “we finally say, ‘Y’know what, we have to play hard. We have to play with more concentration. We have to play with more effort.’
Again, it’s not a very safe way to survive in this league. It will take a more consistent effort than being able to turn on the jets.”