MIAMI – Nearly 30 minutes after the cursing, pointing, shouting and anger subsided from the controversial finish to the Miami Heat’s latest playoff collapse against the Charlotte Hornets, veteran star Dwyane Wade already had his point of reference for the rescue mission.
The Heat are scheduled to practice at 1 p.m. on Thursday and then fly to Charlotte two hours later. Somewhere along the way, once he blows off the steam from Wednesday’s 90-88 loss to the Hornets that dropped Miami into a 3-2 series hole, Wade will mention Game 6 to his teammates.
Not the Game 6 the Heat will play Friday in Charlotte with their season on the line, but rather Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. That’s when Miami trailed 3-2 after losing Game 5 at home to the Celtics and had to go to Boston in need of a victory to salvage its season.
“LeBron James had an amazing game to propel us to that win, but we were just very focused as a team,” Wade said Wednesday as he recounted the night James had 45 points and 15 rebounds to force a decisive Game 7 back in Miami, which the Heat also won. “It’s going to be tougher for this team because we’ve never been here. But you don’t run away from the competition.”
This version of the Heat also doesn’t often run back to nostalgic LeBron moments.
Wade’s comment epitomized yet another bizarre night in this first-round series for Miami, which has been pushed to the brink of elimination after three consecutive losses to the Hornets. This time a week ago, the Heat held a 2-0 lead in the series after a franchise record-setting start to the postseason. The Heat scored 238 points through those first two games, shot 58 percent from the field and seemed destined to win their first playoff series of their post-LeBron era.
Now, unless they abruptly halt a recent trend, they might not even make it out of the first round. The Heat need a victory in Charlotte on Friday to force a Game 7 back at AmericanAirlines Arena, but the only consistency this team has shown of late is an inability to win on the road.
Counting this postseason, the Heat have lost seven of their past nine games outside of Miami and have won just two games on the road against current playoff teams since the All-Star break. Wade cautioned all season long that this type of test would come at some point for this team.
It’s here now.
“It’s very challenging when you have to go on the road with a team that hasn’t won too much on the road, and try to find a way to get a win,” Wade continued. “It gets no tougher than that in the playoffs, where a team can close you out on their floor. I don’t know where this team is. I wish I could tell you.”
The Heat have been difficult to figure out all season. Expectations were high coming out of training camp with a rejuvenated Wade, a healthy Chris Bosh and a full season to blend those veterans with point guard Goran Dragic and promising center Hassan Whiteside. Miami also opened the season with a home-friendly schedule, but failed to fully capitalize amid an underwhelming start.
When the calendar flipped to January and featured a stretch with 14 of 16 games on the road, the Heat persevered through injuries and gained some traction as the roster pieces started to fit together. And when Bosh left the lineup in February with a season-ending medical condition for the second time in two years, expectations were that the Heat would falter and again miss the playoffs. Instead, Miami tweaked its offense and went 19-10 over the final two months of the regular season to secure the No. 3 seed in the East and home-court advantage in the first round.
Injuries and adversity have hounded the Heat all season, and that hasn’t changed in this series. Bosh’s strange saga continues to play out behind the scenes and has served as a bit of a distraction to players and executives. On Tuesday, Bosh and his wife used their social media accounts to post messages and a video that seemed to suggest Bosh was ready to return, although the Heat have maintained that he’s out indefinitely. Heat executives were privately frustrated that Bosh and his wife, after months of relative silence about his condition and status, seemed to choose the middle of the playoffs to draw attention to his status.
None of that matters now. The Heat are struggling against a Hornets team that has figured them out and has seized control of this series despite not even playing its best brand of basketball.
On Wednesday, Charlotte won despite being outrebounded, outscored in the paint and shooting just 39.3 percent from the field. In Game 3, the Heat were outscored 18-0 during a decisive run in the third quarter of a 96-80 loss. In Game 4, the Hornets used a 36-8 run in the second half to take over on the way to a 89-85 victory. Wednesday’s bad stretch came in the fourth quarter, when the Heat squandered a seven-point lead. Breakdowns on both ends in the final 10 seconds of the game also doomed the Heat, who for a second consecutive game complained on the court about calls that didn’t go their way.
Wade and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra got caught up -- and even distracted -- by the referees. The Heat are in this position because of a lack of late-game execution. For two consecutive games, Hornets guard Courtney Lee made the biggest plays late with effort more so than skill. After snagging two offensive rebounds to secure the win in Game 4, he got another offense board Wednesday and then drilled the 3-point dagger that essentially locked up the Game 5 victory.
That had nothing to do with the whistles. It was all about hustle.
Spoelstra took the blame for the loss and acknowledged he should have called a timeout to get the Heat organized when Wade and Joe Johnson stumbled through a set play during a key offensive possession in the final 20 seconds. The play ended with Wade losing the ball as he attempted to drive into the lane and score over Cody Zeller. There was contact, with Wade believing he was fouled on the way up and Zeller insisting later that he held his defensive ground while contesting Wade at the rim.
“It hurts losing at home,” Spoelstra said. “But welcome to the playoffs. The playoffs just started now. One team beat somebody on the road. Now it gets real. Now we just have to collect ourselves, as raw as it feels right now. We have 48 hours to regroup and get ready for a heck of a battle in Game 6.”
The Heat have no other choice.
“Being frustrated going into Game 6 does you no good,” Wade said. “But tonight, yeah, my wife has to deal with me tonight. I’m going to be pissed off all night until I go to sleep. But when I wake up [Thursday], as a leader, I’m going to come in here with a different mindset. I’m going to look at the game before I get in here to see where I can help my team, where I can be better, to help these guys who haven’t been in this situation before. I have.”
This time, LeBron isn’t around to rescue the Heat.
It’s squarely on those he left behind to dig themselves out of this hole.