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Miami Heat look to turn up aggression, recapture identity against Spurs

Photo: John W. McDonough/SI

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James controlled the tempo in the first half of Game 1, but couldn't sustain it.

MIAMI -- Everything changed when Tony Parker made his daredevil, Globetrotteresque bank shot to finish the Spurs' win in Game 1. Had Parker held onto the ball for one tenth of a second longer, then maybe the pressure would be on San Antonio now. If his leaning bank shot had hopped off the rim instead of falling in, then the Heat would not be focused so urgently on Game 2.

"Maybe," said Heat center Chris Bosh, "when we look back on this, we'll say losing Game 1 was the best thing that happened for us."

Both teams will have a better understanding for the terms of this NBA Finals by the end of Game 2 Sunday night. The Spurs made the opening statement by forcing the ball out of the hands of LeBron James while pushing the tempo and creating open shots through Parker. The Heat have had two days to prepare their rebuttal.

If Game 2 is played to Miami's style -- which means aggressive defense and mismatches created by James -- then this promises to be a pick-'em series that will go back and forth for six or seven games. If the Spurs are able to maintain their style, even if Miami is able to steal a win at the end, then the Heat will head off to San Antonio for Games 3, 4 and 5 knowing that they're in enormous trouble.

"I don't think we'll make the same mistakes we made in Game 1," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade. "That's what we always try to do, to come out the next game and be a different team. We always feel like as the series goes on, we get better and stronger."

This is the fifth of eight playoff series (dating back to the postseason of last year) in which Miami has been trailing in games. The Heat's M.O. has been to respond to such pressures constructively and aggressively.

"That fear kind of drives this team a little bit,'' said Bosh. "It gives us more of that sense of urgency to really do a much better job and have a much better focus the next game, and I think everybody knows that. For some reason when our backs are against the wall, we really respond appropriately. That kind of propels us to the rest of the series.''

Bosh's play will be an indicator. He is never going to be a low-post, back-to-the-basket punisher. But he does need to attack more, rather than settling for outside jump shots. He was criticized for missing all four of his threes in the opener, but his play was symptomatic of a larger problem -- the Heat attempted 25 shots from deep, but made just 12 free throws, meaning the Heat, as a team, were settling for jumpers rather than attacking the paint. That is an untenable ratio for an aggressive team like Miami.

GOLLIVER: D-Wade says Game 2 is 'must-win'

The Heat looked passive and without energy because they weren't forcing turnovers. The most impressive stat of Game 1 was that the Spurs committed 4 turnovers while playing for the first time in 10 days against one of the league's most aggressive defenses. After Game 1, James and his teammates spoke of how they lacked energy and played passively while losing control of the game in the fourth quarter. It didn't have so much to do with their rugged seven games in the conference finals as much as the absence of easy plays and inspiring open-court dunks by James to fire up his team and its fans. They played as if they were demoralized by the ineffectiveness of their defense.

"Our guys get angry," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "They own it. We all own it together, and then we just work together to try to get better."

Wade has said that his bruised right knee has been feeling better in the last two games, and the first play of the game was indicative of his ability, and his team's ability, to use defense to jump-start them. A deflection by Chris Bosh leads to an outlet to LeBron James and completed by a Wade dunk. When the Heat were winning 27 games in a row, that's what their team looked like on a consistent basis.

Their aggressive defense against pick-and-rolls and the deflections that put them in the open floor will be vital to making sure both Wade and Bosh remain engaged. So too will be James, who promises to be more aggressive in looking to score. "I think I improve as the series goes on as well," said James, "seeing ways I can be more aggressive from possession to possession on in the series."

After watching James snare 18 rebounds to single-handedly enable Miami to control the glass in Game 1 -- Miami won the rebounding battle 46-37 -- it would seem to be ridiculous to ask him to build on his opening triple-double. But if the Heat remain futile in transition -- they didn't generate a point on fast breaks in the second half of Game 1 -- then they're going to need him to provide scoring in addition to all of his other burdens.

"I would love to have rest,'' said James, who is playing in a third straight Finals in addition to leading the U.S. to the gold medal in the Olympics last summer. "But not at this time of the year. It's a toll to go through what I've been through the last two‑and‑a‑half years. But I've been blessed."

The blessing for Miami would be to recapture its identity as a swarming, aggressive, open-court team that has earned them the moniker 'Flying Death Machine.' Nobody is better at turning defense into offense than the Miami Heat, as evidence by their dominating performance in Game 7 against Indiana as wreckers of havoc.

If you believe Bosh and Wade, perhaps a 'must-win' game is exactly what the Heat need to get back to doing what it does best: create chaos.

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