Friday June 3rd, 2011

MIAMI -- They have come so far, this Heat team. It cut through the adversity of a South Beach sized bullseye on their backs and solved the problem of having three superstars willing to sacrifice their games but not having the slightest clue how to do it. The maturation of the Miami Heat has been slow, steady and complete. Well, almost.

It took seven minutes and fourteen seconds for the Heat to unravel, for the ghosts of Miami's past to awaken and haunt the American Airlines Arena floor. Up 15 points in the fourth quarter and brimming with confidence, this Miami team started to look like that Miami team, the sometimes selfish, often uncertain bunch that went 9-8 in November. The ball stopped moving, Dwyane Wade stopped scoring and LeBron James hoisted shot after shot, his eyes following each one, pleading with it to go in and halt a merciless 20-2 Dallas run that powered the Mavs to a 95-93 win in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

"I don't know what happened," Chris Bosh said.

Erik Spoelstra does. Spoelstra called four timeouts over the final 7:14. In each, the coach exhorted his team to have patience with the offense, to trust each other, keep the ball moving and not settle for the three-point shot. They didn't, and the Mavs pounced on every miss, every mistake.

"That's about as tough a fourth quarter as you can have," Spoelstra said. "When it started to slide, it just kept going."

It was a slide, yes, but one Miami caused and proceeded to grease with its own actions. They preened when they should have put their heads down, roared at the crowd when they should have run back on defense. This is a proud Dallas team that doesn't take kindly to being kicked when it's down, which is exactly what Wade did after he buried the three that pushed the Heat lead to 15. He held his follow through in the air like it was a photo-op, a scene that played out right in front of the Mavericks' bench. In the team huddle, an incensed Terry locked eyes with Nowitzki and bluntly informed the big German, "We're not going out like this."

"It was a turning point in the game," Terry said. "I can't say what was going through my mind. Seeing them celebrate like that, man, it was really disheartening for us. Then I took another glance at the score and at the time. There was a lot of time left."

Plenty of time to make a comeback. Fifteen points in the fourth quarter? Ask Oklahoma City if Dallas can rally from that. Miami had played brilliantly up until that point, but the Mavs refused to lay down. Rick Carlisle called very few plays down the stretch, instead letting his team pick-and-roll Miami to death and let Nowitzki (nine points in the quarter) and Terry (eight) pick apart a suddenly soft Heat defense. Miami fired three-pointer after three-pointer, 11 in the fourth and 30 in all, hoping a couple of timely makes would reignite the crowd and make the Mavericks quit. That busted left middle finger Nowitzki was playing with didn't seem to bother him much: two of his last three buckets -- including a high-arcing game winning layup -- came off that left hand.

"Dirk knew it was coming to him," Terry said. "He does what Dirk always does."

It's gut-check time now in Miami. This series now shifts to Dallas for three games in one of the most hostile environments in the league. The Mavericks have seen behind the curtain. They now know that seemingly impregnable Heat fourth-quarter defense is beatable, that blitzing Miami's pick-and-roll with Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler can disrupt the flow of the offense.

The Heat say, confidently, that they will not be rattled. "It's a ballgame now," James said. And they are prepared to fight back. They say they will take from the lessons learned early in the season, when they faced adversity nightly. "Every time we have had a pitfall," James said, "We've figured out how to bounce back."

"We'll regroup," Spoelstra said. "We have a tough group in there. We haven't had it easy at times, so we know how to respond when we have our backs against the wall."

Indeed, they do. They had a nation against them back in November and they fought their way to a Finals appearance. But the margin for error is so small now. There is no room for any more growing pains, no time to slowly figure things out. Mistakes will need to be corrected, adjustments will need to be made, and quickly. Miami is three wins away from a championship that could very well kick off one of the most historic runs the NBA has ever seen. But they are also now three losses away from a summer full of questions and doubt.

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