If ever there was an image to make you believe that a fortune-balancing force governs the NBA, it was the crippled, cramp-induced limp of LeBron James in his Miami Heat’s 110-95 Game 1 loss to the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night.
Given how San Antonio bowed out in last year’s Finals—Ray Allen’s Game 6-winning three sparking perhaps the most miraculous two-game turnaround in league history—there was certainly a lingering sense, for Spurs fans anyway, that justice needed evening.
Now, it’s the Heat who must bounce back from a cruel cosmic blow.
Which is why, championship pedigree aside, Game 2 has suddenly become a must-win.
Let’s be clear: Miami is good enough to overcome a 2-0 deficit. You simply don’t make it this far without having an ace or four up your sleeve.
Rather, “must-win” defines the attitude the Heat must have—the sheer urgency with which they should be preparing—as they head into Sunday.
“That’s a cop-out,” one might say. “Every game is a must-win if you’re in the postseason.”
Fair enough. But if you honestly believe a team approaches Game 3 of Round 1 the same way it might Game 7 of the Finals, I’ve got a broken air conditioner to sell you.
These Spurs are simply too good and too prepared for anyone to believe what happened to them in 2012—when the Oklahoma City Thunder erased their 2-0 deficit en route to a six-game coup—could happen on this stage, with such stakes and legacies on the line.
Unfortunately for the Heat, their biggest credit may also be their biggest cautionary tale.
For it was just one year ago that Miami, following a Game 1 loss on their home floor, rallied to tie the series with an impressive 103-84 win two days later.
That the Heat were very nearly ousted in six games, despite having home-court advantage, tells you all you need to know about how quickly these Spurs can put you to heels.
Even Dwyane Wade, who famously referred to 2013’s Game 2 as a “must-win,” via Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, at least acknowledged how the rest of the basketball-viewing public perceives this year’s encore.
The good news: Miami’s recent history on this front has been nothing if not fruitful. From an Associated Press report published during last year’s Finals (via Sports Illustrated):
They trailed Chicago 1-0 in the 2011 East finals and won 4-1.
They trailed Oklahoma City 1-0 in last year’s NBA Finals and won 4-1.
They trailed the Bulls again in this year’s second round and won 4-1. The rule even applies when facing other deficits, like when they were down 2-1 to Indiana last year before winning in six games, and when they trailed the Boston Celtics 3-2 in last year’s East finals before winning in seven.
That’s a combined record of 17-0 in those series after falling behind.
Add their two series wins over the Spurs in last year’s Finals and the Indiana Pacers this postseason, when Miami once again fell behind 1-0, and that record jumps to 25-3.
But if Miami’s mind is where it should be, the Heat will heed a much more forceful statistic. Only three teams in the history of the NBA have come back to win after falling down 0-2 in the Finals: the 1969 Boston Celtics, the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers—oddly enough—and the 2006 Heat.
Of course, the circumstances were far different when the Heat pulled off the feat eight years ago. And while Miami might take solace in this year’s squad being bigger, faster, smarter and stronger than its Wade-led brethren, so too are these Spurs better—far, far better, in fact—than were those Dallas Mavericks.
If ever there were a team more prepared to punish an opponent for even daring to spot them two-love, it’s these Spurs. The memories of last year’s nightmare are too vivid, the taste too bitter, to bet anything otherwise.
And yet, Sunday’s pivotal showdown is less about writing off the Heat should they fall down 2-0 and more about why they need to do what they’ve done so many times before: Find that extra gear as early in the series as possible.
In that sense, what happened in Game 1 might’ve been the best thing that could’ve happened to the Heat. Not only did they bear the full brunt of San Antonio’s savvy attack, but they were also forced to watch as their undisputed leader—a legend already and the greatest in the making—was betrayed by the one thing we all assumed was sound as steel.
Worse, James has had to hear his heart questioned, to see the sheer cruelty of circumstances conflated with character.
That’s the LeBron James—jaded, righteously enraged—the Spurs may well wish they’d never seen.
As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote, the conditions in Game 1 were an anomaly that we shouldn't expect to see moving forward.
...it doesn’t make it any less disturbing to see the game’s greatest star felled by something as mundane as a faulty compressor. Championships are won and lost by the smallest of things—a rebound, a hesitation, a shot two inches off course, a turned ankle, an untimely cramp.
That this was a wholly avoidable injury, a freak occurrence caused by a freak occurrence, had to make it that much more galling to the Heat, though they betrayed no anger in the aftermath.
So you can deem Game 2 a necessity for Miami or not. You can levy, logically perhaps, that no two-time defending champ is out of it until the gold switches hands. Both of which would be fair.
If you're Miami, though, the clearest case for why Sunday remains a must-win lies somewhere else entirely: that the best player in the world believes the basketball gods have somehow slighted him.