MIAMI — Push had already figuratively come to shove for the Miami Heat, with the recent struggles of this season threatening to pull them apart. But Erik Spoelstra has spoken of translating pure intentions into positive action, and so he decided to demonstrate during Monday's second quarter.
With his own momentary lapse of sanity.
That's what Spoelstra, at the morning shootaround, said the team could probably use in the midst of its struggles. Here, LeBron James had just stormed down the center of the court against a pair of Blazers—Dorell Wright and Damian Lillard—losing his headband but winning two free throws, then clapping at the crowd for even more energy. Before he could get back to the bench, to take part in the timeout huddle, Spoelstra—gritting his teeth—blindsided him at the baseline with a celebratory two-handed shove.
This sequence spoke to how far coach and star have come since a long-ago (and much more concerning) time of crisis, the pre-parade days of December 2010, when a bump in Dallas signaled dissension to most of America.
This one was a playful push, on a night the Heat got a 93-91 win they desperately needed to restart their pre-playoff push. As always with the Heat, it wasn't as much about what they accomplished (pulling within a game in the loss column of Indiana prior to Wednesday's showdown) as what they avoided (a complete fourth-quarter collapse on the heels of Saturday night's no-show in New Orleans).
But what about that shove?
"I saw him coming toward me," James said later, laughing. "But I didn't know he was gonna shove me."
Spoelstra said it was spontaneous. But it also had an objective. The coach had liked the team's early energy yet had seen James get flustered when not getting calls.
"Just wanted him to continue to attack," Spoelstra said. "I wanted LeBron to be aggressive, and everybody else would follow. But that energy was terrific on both ends of the court. That last six minutes of the second quarter is what we were talking about the last 48 hours."
Those last 48 hours had started with a lamentable loss, and some stinging self-analysis, with Chris Bosh declaring "we suck," and James finally shooting down the team's series of ongoing excuses. It was followed by a playtime pause, a 30th birthday party for Bosh at a rented-out Marlins Park, where James and Dwyane Wade took turns dousing Spoelstra in the dunktank.
Then, Monday, the news came that Wade would miss his 19th game of the season, this one due to a sprained ankle. In his pre-game media session, James spoke vaguely of the "elephant in the room" that the team had addressed, and even implied some annoyance with others' absences, by simply saying his own ankle was sore, but "I'm active, I'm on the floor, and it's my obligation to make plays for our team to win."
He then took a dozen shots in the first quarter, missing often with his jumper, but not slinking back into a shell. Meanwhile, Portland, without LaMarcus Aldridge and reduced to long-range shooting, kept missing from deep, 27 of their first 34 attempts from three-point range through three quarters.
The Heat led by 11 entering the fourth, and soon by 17, not playing perfectly, but certainly passionately—especially James (32 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals) and Chris Andersen (13 points, 11 rebounds in 23 minutes).
Then things started to slip. Again. Portland started making the types of shots they'd been missing. Miami stopped moving the ball.
"Harrowing," Spoelstra called it.
After Mario Chalmers passed to Norris Cole near the corner, Cole lost the ball and fouled Mo Williams, and Williams made two free throws. It was tied with 30.9 seconds left.
That's when Spoelstra called a 20-second timeout.
With Wade sitting, there wasn't any question who would initiate the action against the Blazers' 2-3 zone. Spoelstra had designed several different layers. The later ones weren't necessary.
"LeBron made the right read," Spoelstra said. "Saw a gap."
James used a Chalmers screen of Lillard, got to his left hand and laid the ball in over Robin Lopez.
James said that he felt, after two late turnovers and passing up other some other opportunities, "it was time for me to shoot one."
Portland still had 11.4 seconds left, and a timeout, but chose not to use it.
"We kind of figured (Lillard) was gonna try to go for the win," Bosh said. "He's had a couple game-winners from three. Norris did a good job of running him off, and making sure he didn't get the shot that he wanted."
Still, Lillard got in the lane.
Bosh, who had called for more determination and communication, was the Heat's backline.
"As soon as he picked the ball up, I was able to just follow the flight of the ball, and be there for help defense," Bosh said.
If he hadn't been, after all he'd said, he certainly would have heard it. Bosh had not only called out his teammates, but himself, Saturday, feeling he'd let them down with his defense of late.
"No. 1 was the one that made it, OK," Spoelstra said of Bosh's jersey number. "If you're going to go out there and put it on your shoulders, you have to make those plays, and he did. Lillard had daylight, he really did. And that's what good defensive teams do; you have to make plays that are out of the box."
The Heat made just enough on a night Spoelstra got out of the coach's box and got in a physical show of approval.
A shove that James said he loved.
"It was great, man, the enthusiasm, we had it back tonight," James said. "We were flying around, we played Miami Heat basketball. You get wins when you are true to who you are."
Now the Heat will try to stay this way, as they try to shove Indiana out of the top spot.