MIAMI — There have been so many now that they bleed together, these finishes that stop and start your heart. It's been four years of furious flurries, mad dashes down the stretch, since the core of this Heat team commenced their collaboration in 2010. And so, for players, the only thing tougher than persevering is remembering, when asked to compare the most recent unlikely playoff victory to those of postseasons past.
Wednesday's 96-94 win, against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5 of the 2014 second round, brought one in particular to mind: the closeout blitz against the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
"Yeah, that barrage," Chris Bosh said. "I don't even remember that game. We were down like 10 or 12 with like three minutes. I don't even remember that. I just remember it happened, and I was like, 'Damn!' That's really all I remember. Like, 'Holy s---!'"
The record shows they were down 12 with three minutes and four seconds remaining that night, only to win by three. Wednesday, the deficit was eight as late as 2:49 remaining, prior to LeBron James starting the rally with a straightaway three-pointer.
In time, most of the rest of the details will fade. Certainly, the early events will: Miami missing its first 11 three-point shots. Brooklyn walling off the paint against James to avoid a repeat of what he did in Game 4; what he called his "explosion" for 49 points. Dwyane Wade playing as freely and dynamically as he has in weeks, with 20 points by halftime.
The final few minutes will be hazy, too. Chris Bosh's fourth three-pointer of the second half. Wade's feathery fadeaway. James' swat of Joe Johnson, who, as James admitted "was torching me," scoring 24 of Brooklyn's 45 points in the second half. Shaun Livingston's forced layup, when Erik Spoelstra figured Jason Kidd would go to Paul Pierce. The free throw James missed. The two free throws Ray Allen made.
Two recollections may remain.
The first lasting memory: Allen's left wing three-pointer, which came after he had missed his first six from behind the arc. James drove and kicked out to Chalmers, who wisely passed up a good shot for a better one.
"I was gonna shoot it," Chalmers said. "I think Ray knows that I live for those type of moments."
But his feet weren't set, and he didn't have a good grip on the ball.
"In hindsight, it was an incredible lookoff," Spoelstra said. "And then he threw him a corkscrew curveball."
"It was actually a good pass," Chalmers said, laughing.
It caused Allen to gather and step to the side before he shot.
"It kind of came off weird, where he didn't really throw to me, he was like in between, like he was throwing to me or driving," Allen said. "I was like, this ball is going up. It's something I practice every day."
And, as Johnson lamented, "I don't know how we left Ray."
The second lasting memory: Johnson fumbling in traffic while guarded by James before the final buzzer sounded, which prompted the latter to leap atop the owners' table, punch the sky and beat his chest.
"A lot of emotions," James said. "It's always been like that for us. It's never easy, it's never easy for us. And it always comes down to 'can we get a stop at the end to win?' And we had to do that again."
"We just kept telling LJ, 'stay with it, stay with it,'" Spoelstra said. "He's making tough shots over the top. We didn't want to send another defender because of the three-point shots. He got a couple big-time stops at the end, not by getting overwhelmed or panicking or overreacting to his tough shots."
Johnson felt he was fouled, and maybe he was, as Allen and James both reached low under his legs. But, really, in the rear view, none of these details will matter. They don't even matter much now. What matters is the Heat have done this before, and they keep proving they can do it again, which is why they remain serious contenders to retain their title.
They are now in the Eastern Conference Finals for a fourth straight postseason, awaiting Indiana or Washington and still with "some business to take care of," as James put it. They are flawed, for certain, but they are also tough and tested, which will make them a tough out for anyone. They lost all four contests to the Nets in the regular season, in part because their ornery opponents out-executed them late, winning three of those games by one point and one in double overtime.
In this series, Miami was plus-32 in the fourth quarters, including plus-11 on Wednesday.
"You're built for this!" Spoelstra kept screaming in the Heat's Game 5 huddle.
That's a phrase that Allen adopted earlier in this series, a series of special significance, since his former friends turned frigid foes Pierce and Kevin Garnett were on the other side. He said he didn't see them after the game; in Garnett's case, it was impossible, because the Big Ticket high-tailed it out of the arena bowl, heading for the tunnel, then ducking the media. But Allen didn't need to. They saw him do what he does. They attacked him on defense, so much that Spoelstra thought of replacing him with Shane Battier on that end, but chose instead to let the game flow.
"Ray Allen is unbelievable," James said. "We're lucky we have him on our side."
They didn't in 2011, when they closed out Chicago; Allen was wearing green when the Heat eliminated Boston in 2011 and 2012. But the other four on the floor—James, Wade, Bosh, Chalmers—have been through four years of this. And others, like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem (who will play more of a role in the next series) and Norris Cole and Chris Andersen and James Jones have been through many of the battles with them.
Was there stress?
"Of course," Bosh said. "But gotta keep it cool. Gotta breathe."
"Overwhelmingly, the No. 1 key in this series was great mental stability," Spoelstra said.
They showed, after an uneven regular season, that they still have it when it counts.
"I wasn't thinking so much, 'When the playoffs get here, everything's gonna change,'" Bosh said. "That's kind of a dangerous way to think. But I knew we were going to do a better job of focusing. And just really locking in. And that's all it takes.... But defensively, offensively, we have to pay a little bit more attention to detail, lock in a little bit more. And the playoffs bring that out of you."
They bring out something else in this team, as every postseason opponent but the 2011 Dallas Mavericks has come to learn.
"How bad do you want it?" Bosh said. "That's what it's all about sometimes. You just have to make s--- happen. We've got big-time players. And when you have big-time players, big-time situations happen. And you have to have confidence."
They have it. They've earned it, through games like these.
"It makes us dangerous," Bosh said.
It makes them defending champions, still breathing, and onto the NBA's final four.
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