MIAMI -- A triple-double from LeBron James was not enough. Nine turnovers turned out to be too many. The gains of their runaway regular season and 27-game winning streak are gone. Now, maybe, the Heat can begin to feel comfortable and alive.
"We hate to lose before we start to get a little edge," said James, who helped Miami control the boards with 18 rebounds of his own to go with his 18 points and 10 assists. "But that's what happens."
They lost the first game at this time last year before sweeping the next four against Oklahoma City to win the championship. They lost the opener to the Bulls two rounds ago. Then they lost Game 2 here in the conference finals, which incited the Heat to play their best game of these playoffs in a crucial Game 3 win at Indiana not so long ago.
And so their 92-88 loss Thursday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals is probably the kind of excruciating alarm clock that the Heat needed. What made this defeat more painful -- and therefore most helpful -- was that they looked so hopeless down the stretch.
"The fourth quarter was the difference," said James. "I can see it on a few of our guys' faces -- felt a little fatigued, still a little banged up from that seven‑game series. [The Spurs] looked like they were rested in the fourth quarter; they took advantage of that. We played some really good basketball, but in the closing quarter we had some mental mistakes."
It was not supposed to be this way. The Spurs were supposed to look rusty while playing their first game in 10 days. "I don't really know what to expect," said their coach Gregg Popovich shortly before he watched the Heat overcome a slow couple of minutes to steadily outscore their guests 44-29. Dwyane Wade (17 points overall) was providing an energetic and aggressive performance despite his ongoing knee problems. They had everything going for them and they looked miserable.
"You hold them to 42 percent, you hold them to 92 [points] -- normally, with our offense, we think we're in the driver's seat," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "We just have to regroup; we've been through a lot; we've shown resolve and toughness."
He sounded as if he was working his way through the checklist that this team needs in order to find the identity to which Spoelstra refers so often.
When times are good, the Heat are not at their best. As the fourth quarter wore on and Tony Parker grew more effective, the defending champs looked increasingly rusty, constipated offensively and lacking inspiration. They committed five uncharacteristic turnovers in the fourth quarter. Instead of attacking the basket they settled for jump shots.
"And now we just have to get back to work," Spoelstra went on, "and make sure we're doing better all the way through to the last hundred‑tenth of a second."
He was referring to the last miraculous play of Parker. With the Spurs up 90-88, Parker dribbled into a switch against Mike Miller and then into another switch against Chris Bosh before finding himself near the right corner of the floor matched up again against LeBron. All this while Parker was continuing to dribble like a toy rabbit banging on a battery-operated drum. He almost lost his dribble off his own right leg, and he almost lost control again as he stumbled down to one knee before recovering his balance with a pirouetting spin that spun him around and beneath the long reach of James.
"Tony did everything wrong and did everything right in the same possession," said James, who watched Parker's leaning jumper leave his hand just as the shot-clock buzzer sounded. "That was the longest 24 seconds that I've been a part of."
Parker's leaning, double-pumping jumper banked hard off the glass, hard off the front rim and flopped into the net to finish the improbable possession and finish off the Heat's chances with 5.2 seconds left. Some 57 seconds earlier, the Heat had a far more promising chance of their own while trailing by 90-86: James drove into the lane and kicked out behind him to Bosh for an open three that Bosh clanged off the back iron. "We had an opportunity to get into the paint," said Spoelstra, having noticed that the entire floor had opened in front of Bosh. "He was open; probably open for a reason at that point."
Bosh was 0-for-4 outside the arc and 6-of-12 inside it. Spoelstra was sounding as if he wasn't happy with the selection when he caught himself.
"You know what, we'll take that shot," Spoelstra said. "It didn't come down to that. There were more plays going down the stretch -- turnovers, random possessions where we didn't get to where we wanted to. We didn't get the shots that we wanted to, and some of those loose balls, offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter really hurt."
There was an airballed three by Mike Miller and an ensuing pass delivered behind a cut by James that went for a turnover. There was an entry pass by James that was intercepted by Kawhi Leonard. There was a difficult finger roll by Wade that he was never going to be able to finish in between Leonard and Tim Duncan. There was a Ray Allen three blocked cleanly from behind by Manu Ginobili that led to a turnover by Mario Chalmers. The Heat went 5-for-18 (missing all five of their threes) in the fourth quarter while ceding the three-point lead they carried out of the third. James made half of his four shots in the quarter, Chris Andersen finished a couple of field goals around the rim and everyone else for Miami went 1-for-11.
So now they know what they're up against. The Spurs are going to focus their defensive attention on James while trying to force the ball out of his hands. They're going to find out whether Wade is healthy enough to perform throughout the series, whether Bosh will make the big plays and whether the Miami role players will fulfill their roles.
"They did a good job of putting two guys on the ball," said James. "When I got the ball they kind of shrunk the floor and set a guy at the elbow and dared me to pass the ball. I know my guys will be there to knock those shots down the next game. We had some really good looks, especially in the third quarter. It just didn't go down."
How many times must we hear of the panic around Miami? Isn't it time to recognize that losses like this are necessary for the Heat?
The Spurs may turn out to be the opponent that prevents Miami from procrastinating successfully. San Antonio may not provide the Heat with opportunities to recover from these early mistakes. At the same time, the Spurs know that James will be more aggressive in the games to come. The Heat will attempt fewer threes and earn more free throws. They'll force a few more turnovers and draw confidence from the 46-37 rebounding advantage they earned in Game 1.
This may not be the end. On the contrary, and once again, this game may yet turn out to be the head fake that sets up Miami to attack the rest of the series.