NEW YORK -- A few Miami Heat players were wandering through the renovated catacombs of Madison Square Garden on Sunday morning when it dawned on them they had no idea where they were going. "Can you help us find our locker room?" one asked a security guard. It was an amusing exchange and an appropriate metaphor for a team that has appeared lost as visitors for the past two months.
On Valentine's Day, the Heat blew away the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, becoming the first team in 33 years to win three road games in three nights. They were immune to atmosphere as well as exhaustion. But since that night in Indianapolis, they had not beaten one surefire playoff team outside of South Florida, buckling in Utah and Los Angeles, Orlando and Boston, and twice in Chicago. "We needed to play better on the road," said Heat forward LeBron James.
In terms of the Eastern Conference playoff race, Sunday's 93-85 win at the Garden was meaningless for Miami. The Heat sit three games behind the Bulls, so they can't think about the top spot anymore, and 4 1/2 ahead of the Pacers, so they shouldn't worry about sliding to third. They will almost assuredly be the No. 2 seed, same as last year, when the playoffs open in two weeks.
But for the Heat, psyche matters more than seed, so Sunday was the most important exhibition of the season. Down four points with little more than eight minutes left, the Heat were confronted by their familiar fourth-quarter demons, and stared them down. James finished the Knicks on one end, smothering Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade closed on the other. In those final eight minutes and eight seconds, the Heat scored 18 points and the Knicks scored six. Anthony made one shot and Wade made four. James, for those keeping track of his every crunch-time move, sank a long jumper and a tough fadeaway.
The Heat's victory enhances the chance that they will face the Knicks in the first round. That was their only tangible reward, if it even is one. Given their history, they would probably prefer to face Philadelphia.
Miami's formula remains as top-heavy as ever -- James, Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 73 points; everybody else scored 20 -- but it can work, as long as its Big Three never shrinks into a Big Two-and-a-Half. Bosh posted 16 points and 14 rebounds and was drilling his elbow jumper, but more important, he dominated the glass against Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who caused the Heat so many problems with Dallas in last year's Finals.
"When we give teams only one shot, we're the best team in the league," Bosh said. Because the Heat is so flimsy up front, the 6-foot-11 Bosh must carry most of that burden, despite his narrow frame and tendency to drift from the basket. On Sunday, Bosh started at center and got no help from starting power forward Udonis Haslem, who finished with no points and two rebounds. Still, the Heat managed to out-rebound the Knicks by 14.
Over the next two months, the sports world will focus its attention on James, but the internal pressure will be on Bosh. If Miami falls short of a title, he is the logical scapegoat, one of the few assets the Heat can trade for a proven center. But if Miami reaches its destination, Bosh will be redeemed in the same manner as Pau Gasol, ridiculed when the Lakers lost to Boston in the 2008 Finals and hailed when he held his ground against Dwight Howard and the Magic the following June. In only a year, soft turned to sturdy.
If Gregg Popovich coached the Heat, the Big Three might be sitting right now, but they are trying to rediscover the rhythm that has eluded them since February. In their last 25 games, they are 15-10, respectable though not at all what they had in mind when this grand experiment began. "We're still struggling to this day," Bosh said. "But eventually we're going to play our best basketball."
Bosh predicts that day will come "very soon" and there is little reason to doubt him. Before the Heat lost to Dallas last year, they slaughtered Boston and Chicago with methodical precision, and they are not much different than they were then: two supernovas, 12 afterthoughts, and one very tall but slender wild card right in the middle of it all.