SAN ANTONIO — Erik Spoelstra speaks of the pain of losing the way that a proud mother might speak of the pain of pregnancy: as a necessary experience because of the blessing it produced. It was the intense pain of falling in the 2011 Finals that the Miami Heat coach frequently attributes for compelling the self-reflection that led to a reinvention that contributed to two championships.
"That was a humbling experience for all of us," he has said one way or another since, including exactly this way earlier this season in Dallas. "We had to be honest with ourselves that we had to improve, that the game that we were playing was not good enough."
And it is increasingly possible, with a 3-1 deficit in the 2014 NBA Finals against the savvy San Antonio Spurs, that some of them will experience similar pain very soon: pain that will require Spoelstra to rethink his defensive philosophy the way he rethought his offensive approach three years ago; pain that will require LeBron James to find an even higher form; pain that will require Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to further redefine their roles; pain that will require Pat Riley to finally inject some useful youth into the system; pain that will require Micky Arison to pay the freight, no matter the luxury-tax penalties.
Sunday night is simply about putting off that pain as long as possible.
And it was quickly clear Saturday, after the Heat arrived from South Florida to meet the media, the persona they were adopting to achieve that.
Loose and positive.
For four years, the Heat have played under unprecedented, unrelenting pressure. That is absent now, or at least the Heat are trying to make it seem so. They have been one game from elimination four times since James and Bosh signed—2011 against the Dallas Mavericks, 2012 against the Boston Celtics, 2013 against the Indiana Pacers and Spurs—but have never needed two wins just to get even, and never against a team of this quality, since this version of the Spurs is clearly superior to the last.
Since losing Games 3 and 4 at home by a combined 40 points, the Heat closed ranks, opened dialogue and tried to clear their heads. Ray Allen took a 14-mile bike ride around Miami. Wade went to "smell the gym" alone, to see the ball go through after missing nine of his first 10 shots on Thursday. Bosh hosted Wade, James and Udonis Haslem for dinner. And on the plane—one that had a smaller passenger load than the last trip to San Antonio—players shared stories about their most daunting circumstances as pros.
"We've been in situations, all of us individually, whether it was this team or other teams, we've all been in pretty dire situations," Allen said. "So that's something that we talked about (Saturday). We had such a bad feeling, I don't know what our body language looked like in Game 6 last year, but there are moments where we doubted, a lot of the people on the outside doubted. So at no point in this situation right now do we feel any different. There are somewhat of the same emotions."
Their conversations spanned the decades, with James taking particular hope from something that James Jones shared—even if, at the podium, James wasn't entirely accurate with his retelling. Jones' 2006 Phoenix Suns weren't down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals, as James suggested to reporters, but rather, in the first round. But the point still holds. While the Heat keep hearing that no NBA team has ever rallied from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals, eight teams have done it earlier in the playoffs, and that Suns squad was the last, sprinting past Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers by averaging 120.3 points in the final three contests.
"Our mentality was, we knew we had a huge mountain to climb, but we all just agreed, we had to get three wins, and it starts tomorrow," Jones recalled. "So came back home, rested mentally and we had to take it to another level. And we pulled out Game 5. Then we had a tough one in L.A. And in Game 7 at home, we had one of those great games, where everything was clicking."
Of course, this time, Jones' team will need to win two of the three on the road. But again, some of the same applies. Jones believes that, as with those Suns, it's not about tactics: "We know that 95 percent of what's wrong on the floor is a player adjustment. We haven't adjusted to the speed they're playing at. We haven't dialed into their tendencies. So it's on us. We have to do a better job."
Jones doesn't figure to play much of a part in that, since his minutes will be modest at most, even after scoring 11 quick points in garbage time Thursday. But, for James, Wade, Bosh, Allen and others—maybe even a more-utilized Haslem—to extend the season, they'll need to first believe that they can. That belief wasn't always apparent during the two games in Miami, but the Heat did their best to project it Saturday. It started with their coach, who was on the staff of another of the teams that came back from 3-1 down, the 1997 Heat against the New York Knicks in the second round.
That was the series in which one of the NBA's all-time nice guys, P.J. Brown, flipped another of them (Knicks guard Charlie Ward) at the free-throw line, setting off a brawl that precipitated suspensions and changed the tenor of that series.
Spoelstra smiled more than usual Saturday—as he tends to do when the world is against him—and he smiled at this memory, from his days as a video coordinator.
What was the message then, from Riley on down?
"Yeah, it was probably similar," Spoelstra said. "You can't get ahead of yourself. You really can't. Once we won the infamous flip game, okay, we still had to go into the lion's den, and that was an incredible challenge to go into New York where they had built up a great deal of confidence. The crowd was incredible. We had to gut out a very close win down the stretch. But you can't start thinking about two games ahead, three games ahead, all of that. It's just about (Sunday) for us and today was about getting to work. I'm sure all of our guys—we didn't talk about it, but I'm sure everybody's heard all the cliches, all the messages, all the positive thinking, but it's about us collectively coming together and embracing it."
His players, at least publicly, sounded as if they intended to try.
"It's pretty simple," Shane Battier said. "We either get it...or we don't."
Either way, Battier's moving on to retirement, to call college basketball games for ESPN, per Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead. So if they don't, his pain may pass sooner. The same for Ray Allen, in the unlikely event that he also chooses to retire, with plenty of signs pointing to him sticking around if James does. For others, though, the pain will linger longer, in part because the criticism will be stronger.
Bosh, who wasn't involved enough in the offense during the last two losses, spoke of being excited about another chance to "get the job done."
Wade, whose defense has left much to be desired, insisted that while the Heat's list of problems may look "massive" to outsiders, it's more a combination of smaller issues, and they are still "a very confident team and highly capable team."
And James, who has shot 60 percent in the series but still hasn't provided enough?
He spent most of his press conference twisting the cap on a bottle of liquid, though it would be a stretch to call him fidgety. Actually, he was quite the opposite, at peace with the prospects. And while critics, those who prefer him to exude intensity all the time, are sure to parse his comments about perspective ("it's just basketball"), it should be noted that he's said such things before and proceeded to play brilliantly. (His presser following Game 6 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals comes foremost to mind.)
"Understanding what's important and understanding what's not important allows me to kind of just live in the moment and not focus on what's happened in the past," James said. "I can't control the past. I can't redo it. I can live in the present, try to affect the future and live with the results while I'm in it."
Can he thrive as an extreme underdog? Because that is what history, and the bettors, now say he is.
"Why not us?" James asked. "Why not us? History is broken all the time. And obviously we know we're against the greatest of odds. No team has ever come back from a 3‑1 deficit in the Finals, but there was a point where no team came back from a 2‑0...There is a point where no team came back from a 3‑1 or 3‑0 deficit in the ALCS, and then the Red Sox did it against the Yankees. So history is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great. That would be a great storyline, right? But we'll see what happens. I've got to live in the moment, though, before we even get to that point."
Live in the moment.
Keep the season alive.
Or live with, and learn from, the pain.