MIAMI -- I will bet you all of the money in my pocket -- not much, I admit, but it's all I've got -- that Pat Riley felt the same acidic, clammy, bass-drum-beating-in-his-skull feelings that he felt in 1984. This is something he would rather not recall, but here it was in front of him Thursday.
The better team lost.
His team was beaten.
In 1984, it was Larry Bird's Celtics upsetting the Riley-coached Lakers at the end of Game 2 in Boston on a James Worthy turnover that led to an overtime-forcing layup with 18 seconds remaining, followed by the unfortunate memory of Magic Johnson dribbling out the clock in regulation. The Lakers should have been up 2-0 and they should have won the title. Instead they were positioning themselves to eventually lose Game 7 in Boston.
Twenty-seven years later and it was Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks scoring 22 of the last 27 points over the latter half of the final period to astonish the Heat and steal a 95-93 win. Instead of dominating the NBA Finals with a 2-0 series advantage based on their 15-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Heat have ceded home-court advantage and must win at least one game in Dallas in order to bring the Finals back here for Game 6.
For more than three quarters the Heat were more explosive athletically, quicker to the ball, more skilled from the three-point line. Their defense was impenetrable, their confidence unassailable. Now they find themselves dealing with their front-running reputation for premature celebrating all over again.
"First of all, every team in the league, when they go on a run, they do something," said Dwyane Wade in response to persistent questions about a display put on by he and James midway through the fourth quarter. "Whether it's a signal, whether it's a chest bump, it's a part of the game of basketball.
"A 'celebration' is confetti, champagne bottles. There was no celebration ... Don't make nothing out of that 'celebration,' like you guys did in the Boston series. It's just being excited about the moment. It had nothing to do with the outcome of the game for us."
At the end of the 13-0 run that put Miami out front 88-73, Wade stood in the corner of the floor nearest the Mavericks bench with his right arm extended and his wrist cocked for the longest time. He had just stabbed through a catch-and-shoot three and he was drawing out the crowd and exciting his team. By now he had scored 36 points, he had been unrelenting and unstoppable, and as he walked back to the bench after Dallas called timeout, LeBron James was dancing backward in front of him, shouting and throwing air punches at his chest like Dickie Eklund celebrating Micky Ward in the movies.
"It was a shot made going into a timeout," said Wade, who wouldn't score another point for the remainder of the game. "Every team does something. If it pumped them up -- they won the game. Obviously it did something. That's not the first time, it won't be the last time."
This Miami team always is a victim of its appearances. LeBron decides to surrender his MVP status in order to share the ball with stars, but that story of his decision becomes overwhelmed by the way he presented The Decision. Three prolific scorers sign with a team that runs extended practices and demands defense above all else, and that story is overwhelmed by images of them celebrating on stage before they'd won a game together.
If they're going to win the championship this year, the image of Wade posing and James celebrating in front of the Mavericks bench is going to be another issue to be overcome along the way. Old-school opponents hate the way LeBron's Cavaliers used to pose in Cleveland, they hate the way the Heat react to big plays during the game now -- and they love it when those images backfire. The Mavs were saying afterward that they were incensed by that celebration, but isn't the truth more likely that they wanted to return the favor and rub Miami's collective nose in it?
"It was a turning point in the game," said Jason Terry. "Obviously we come out of that timeout and if we don't score, then we're pretty much dead. We looked at each guy in the huddle to a man. Me specifically, [I] looked at Dirk and said, 'There's no way we're going out like this. It's too much time left in this game.' And for us to go out in a blowout-type fashion with them dunking on us, shooting threes on us, it would have been disheartening."
There was 7:14 remaining, and instead of turning a 15-point lead into 20, the Heat looked as if they were trying to run down the clock. Terry, who had gone 2-for-6 through three quarters, ended the Miami run with a jumper from the elbow. Jason Kidd, who had played poorly, was grabbing a long loose rebound and outletting ahead to Terry for a breakaway layup. James, meanwhile, was leaving a layup on the front rim.
"LeBron had a clean lane," said Nowitzki, who would finish with 24 points, including the final nine for the Mavs in the last 2:44. "He's going to finish those 10 out of 10 times, but we had a couple of lucky bounces down the stretch."
Miami was awful offensively, and Dirk was Larry. Isolated out top against Chris Bosh, Nowitzki spun and fed Marion knifing in for a runner (88-81). He passed out of a double-team to Kidd for a three (90-84). After Terry canned one from midrange, Nowitzki was converting a quick catch-and-shoot jumper over Wade (90-88). A horrid Heat possession that culminated with a contested three-pointer by LeBron was turned into a three-on-one break that was finished left-handed by Nowitzki (90-90), despite the torn tendon on his middle finger.
Something tells me that Wade has been struggling through some kind of injury in these playoffs and keeping it quiet, to his credit. Now he has to listen to the legend of how Nowitzki scored the game-winner with his left hand following a spin move around Bosh. But the real truth is that the losing play was self-inflicted: Bosh had a foul to give and he didn't use it. "I actually drove a little earlier than I would have, knowing they had a foul to give, and made a move. And the foul never came," said Nowitzki. "So I was able to get to the basket and lay it in. That was a big play."
James had made an amazing inbound pass across the half-court to provide Mario Chalmers with a wide open game-tying three (93-93) with 24.5 seconds remaining, just after Nowitzki had nailed a three of his own to give Dallas a briefly-held advantage. Should Miami have doubled Nowitzki on the final possession? Should Udonis Haslem have been assigned to him instead of Bosh? These are all of the questions that are asked after a loss like this.
In the end two truths can be drawn from Riley's forsaken memories of '84. At that time the Lakers maintained that they were focused on playing through to the end of each game, but years later they would admit to having needed to learn the lesson they were taught by that Finals loss to the Celtics: That devastating series would teach them to be more focused and ambitious than ever. They would also realize long after the fact that the Game 2 upset had undermined their confidence and given Boston a chance to climb back into the series.
So now Riley has to be asking whether this Miami team needs to make the same kinds of mistakes in order to learn the same lessons? Or can this one six-minute loss be compartmentalized and turned into a launching point that helps the Heat win this year?
The other truth is that the '84 Finals was among the most dramatic in NBA history. Now, suddenly, this series carries forth the same potential.