MIAMI — Hysteria and hyperbole have been commonplace regarding all matters concerning the Miami Heat the past four years. But, for a change, one of those inflating the importance of events in recent days came from inside the Heat organization.
"This moment will either define our season or end our season," James told reporters.
James tapered it back some, adding that "obviously, it won't end right now, but if it carries on into the playoffs it will." Still, it was odd to hear him exaggerate, when he tends to downplay.
No seasons were defined Sunday, not that of the healing Heat, and not that of the still-reeling Rockets. The Heat will likely start the playoffs as the East's second seed, and the Rockets will likely start the playoffs as the West's fourth seed.
But Miami's 113-104 win, which included a 21-7 sprint to the finish, was significant, more for what it avoided than what it earned. Another loss would have been Miami's sixth in seven games—the worst stretch since Feb. 24 to Mar. 8 of 2013—and would have turned the white hot sports spotlight back on South Florida.
Sure, that would have been the correct characterization of the national coverage.
"We've never paid attention to the noise, ever since the first year," Chris Bosh insisted. "We've been there, done that. We just focus all our energy on getting the next win. It's just one of those things where it's a Catch-22, man, if you win, 'ah, they were supposed to win!' But if you lose, it's like, 'See, I knew it, they weren't that good!' It's just something that we deal with. But it's something that we deal with, with pride."
Perhaps, but it can be annoying, and distracting, at a time when Miami needs to start doing some other things—like defending, sharing, smiling, surging.
And so this mattered.
"We needed that," Bosh admitted.
They needed it the way that they got it, by pulling away late, and by overcoming a low-scoring fourth quarter from James. He missed all three of his field-goal attempts and scored just two points, lowering his average to 2.4 points, on 23.8 percent shooting in the past seven fourth quarters. For the season, James has averaged 6.5 points in the fourth, on 52.9 percent shooting.
But that lack of production didn't matter Sunday, because of what Ray Allen (14), Dwyane Wade (9) and Norris Cole (five) did, the three of them outscoring Houston by five.
And while it would qualify as hyperbolic to qualify any shot Allen makes as a critical one—after the one that the former Buck, Sonic and Celtic made to save the Heat's 2012-13 season—the one he made with 6:04 left Sunday may have been his most meaningful of this season.
That one came 53 seconds of game time after James sat down. Typically, James rests to start the fourth quarter, but Erik Spoelstra has been tinkering with the rotation—which included Greg Oden getting his second start of the season. And, in this case, Spoelstra actually planned to play James all the way through the fourth.
James expected the same.
"Then one transition play, I burnt all the gas that I had left, and I had to come out," James said. "And it was great, because I was able to come out, get a timeout, get another possession and then I think another timeout happened. So Spo asked me if I was OK. That's all I needed, was a one or two minute break."
That was actually about six minutes of real time. But as James was getting his wind, the Rockets were starting to blow by his teammates. Patrick Beverley's floater—which paled in power and theatrics next to an earlier dunk over Bosh and Chris Andersen—plus Chandler Parsons' uncontested layup plus James Harden's pull-up three-pointer...and suddenly it was 97-92 Houston.
That's when James returned.
That's when Allen got loose.
The 38-year-old has slipped some this season, shooting nearly five percent lower from deep than he did in his first season with the Heat. But he has showed more life of late, leading the comeback against Denver on Friday with 14 points in the fourth and giving Harden trouble with some old-man tricks Sunday. Then, coming out of that timeout with 6:13 left and with the crowd's interest cratering, Allen gave everyone the slip.
He ran down the floor to the left corner, and one could see confusion—even an argument—between Rockets deciding who was supposed to cover him. Jeremy Lin ran back up the floor.
"I don't even know what we did," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
Allen remembers what he did.
"I just waved," Allen said.
He waved at Wade, way down the court.
"I didn't know if he was gonna throw it," Allen said.
"When I looked, he had his hands up," Wade said. "And it was a long pass. And I'm like, OK, they'll recover by then. And then I took another dribble, and they still didn't go. So I was able to find him."
Allen had some time to think.
"I didn't even know if I was going to shoot it," Allen said. "But I was just sitting there, and when he threw it, it was like, 'What's to think about?' Even if I miss, I can get the rebound, because nobody else was down the floor. But it worked out."
"That was a critical possession," Wade said.
It was, because it stemmed some of Houston's momentum and kept out some of the Heat's doubts. It was, even though Dwight Howard responded with a bank shot, and a little over a minute later, Beverley would make a three-pointer.
Those two field goals would be it for Houston.
None in the final 4:26.
"Offense hasn't really been our problem as much as the defensive end," Wade said. "So it was good to get back to."
Meanwhile, Miami toned down the turnovers, with none in the last 8:40. The Heat finished with 13, after committing at least 17 in four recent losses.
"It was good to see us have to gut one out," James said.
Just one. Enough to brush off the buzzards, but just for a day.
"You got to get way more," Bosh said.