By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
MIAMI — The Miami Heat may not be as good as they were in previous seasons. But they sure know when they need to be at their best.
With another fourth-quarter comeback, the Heat finished their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Brooklyn Nets with a 96-94 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. Dwyane Wade (28 points on 10-for-18 shooting) played his best game of the postseason, keeping his team in the game through the first three quarters, and his teammates finished the job in the final 12 minutes.
Over the course of the series, the Nets outscored the Heat by five points through the third period. But in the five fourth periods, Miami was a plus-32. That was the difference in the series and that is the difference between a good team and a championship team.
Basketball is a funny game. Ray Allen was 0-for-6 from 3-point range through the first 47 minutes on Wednesday. But when the Nets’ defense broke down with the game on the line in the final minute, Allen drained a 3 from the left corner – off another hockey assist from LeBron James – to give the Heat their first lead of the second half. Two stops later, they were heading to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth straight year.
As a team, the Heat were 1-for-16 from beyond the arc in the first half and 3-for-19 at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth, they were 6-for-10. James and Chris Bosh each hit two, while Allen and Rashard Lewis hit one apiece.
Brooklyn had cut off the paint all night, successfully keeping James from doing what he had done two nights earlier. The Nets had shown some resilience, recovered from that deflating loss, played another strong game in the face of elimination, and led by eight points with less than three minutes to go. Joe Johnson was on fire once again, and it looked like he was taking this series back to Brooklyn for Game 6.
“He was torching me,” James said. “It got to a point where if I did not get stops on Joe Johnson, we are going to lose the game.”
But James locked down Johnson over the last four minutes, the Nets’ shots stopped falling, and the Heat’s did not. Ultimately, their shots were better shots.
“We just didn’t execute down the stretch,” Johnson said, “offensively or defensively.”
The Heat did execute, just like they’ve been doing for the last three years. Fourth quarters were a struggle in their first season together. They scored less than a point per fourth-quarter possession in the 2011 playoffs.
To say that they’ve figured things out since would be an understatement. They’ve been ridiculously efficient offensively in postseason fourth quarters over the last three years. In this series they scored 133 points on just 99 fourth-quarter possessions.
The Nets were right there with the champs in four of the five games. But they just couldn’t get the necessary stops down the stretch.
“The last two are really hard to take right now,” Deron Williams said, “because we could easily be up 3-2.”
While the Nets enter a summer with some big questions, the Heat are still playing with all the answers.
In their fourth season together, the Heat know exactly who they are. They have the best player in the league, who draws the attention of the entire defense. He doesn’t force anything and he trusts his teammates. As a group, they take what the defense gives them.
More importantly, the Heat don’t panic. And when you have talent, teamwork and resolve, you win big games.
“Overwhelmingly, the No. 1 key in this series was great mental stability,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to have throughout the course of each game, each possession. That’s what it was down the stretch. You can’t get caught up in frustrations, you can’t get caught up in trying to get a 10-point play. It just takes incredible focus, to concentrate one possession at a time.”
Whether this version of the Heat has a championship defense or a championship supporting cast remains to be seen. We may not know for another five weeks.
At this point, we do know that they can make plays when they have to.