MIAMI -- The videos were spliced together to give the false impression of never-ending effort and resilience. "It is our destiny," growled the narrator amid highlights of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh dunking and celebrating one after the next.
The JumboTron dangled over the Miami Heat court like a piano above a large plate of glass. From its screens read this concluding message:
And hardly anyone did. The only audible noise was coming out of the loudspeakers. The support had to be synthesized because moments earlier Paul Pierce had stared down LeBron James from the three-point line, the ball dribbling from his hand to the beat of a calm and confident heart. "Right when he gets into the footwork, you knew he was going to shoot it," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "At least I did, because I've seen him enough." But James, who before this series had mentioned how well he and Pierce knew the games of one another, backed away to leave Pierce the space for the three-pointer that gave the Celtics a four-point lead that robbed the arena that everyone loves to hate of its bluster.
The Celtics stole a 94-90 win in Game 5 on Tuesday and a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals, just six days after they'd fallen 0-2 in overtime while Pierce watched from the bench after fouling out. Miami must now win Game 6 on Thursday in Boston. Anyone who has been paying attention to the last four games will realize how difficult that's going to be.
Afterward Dwyane Wade would roll his eyes and laugh sardonically over the bad luck that followed the two-handed dunk attempt by Boston's Brandon Bass that Wade blocked midway into the fourth. The ball caromed high and was tapped by Rajon Rondo out to Mickael Pietrus in the corner, and, in fact, there was nothing lucky about that play. "Rondo not only saved it," said Rivers, "but he saved it toward one of our shooters."
The loose balls were there for Miami to seize, and yet they surrendered to the older, thinner team, with a bench made up of leftover players like Pietrus, who sank that three-pointer from the corner tapped out to him by Rondo and in so doing slashed Miami's lead down to 78-75 with 6:01 left. Pietrus, who was waived in December by Phoenix and will need knee surgery this summer, went 5-of-8 from the floor (including a couple of threes) while his defense helped prevent LeBron James (30 points on 25 shots) and Wade (27 on 22 shots) from dominating the game. The case can be made that no one in a Miami uniform helped James and Wade as much as Pietrus helped the Celtics. For Miami it was the two of them going one-on-one while no one else could manage double-figures.
You can see where this is headed for the Heat. If they don't win Thursday and lose in six games to an old contender that needed seven games in the previous round to survive the low-scoring 76ers, then this outcome is going to land hard on coach Erik Spoelstra. The Heat are going to look at the coaching moves and the inspirational team-building of Rivers and wonder why they can't squeeze more out of less as Boston has done. Maybe Wade is unable to create his own shots because he is injured, as speculated, or maybe he breaks off plays and attempts impossibly hard turnaround jumpers and sprawling drives because he likes those chances better than he likes the idea of running the plays called by Spoelstra. The truth will come out soon enough if the Heat don't put together the kind of comeback that seems beyond them.
"OK," said Spoelstra as he began his postgame news conference with a statement of phrases pasted out of Pat Riley's old notebooks. "It's a loss, and that's all it is. And that's what our focus is right now, is to fight any kind of noise from the outside or any human condition, and to collectively come together strong to prepare for the next game. And this is what the playoffs are all about. It tests your collective character and your resolve. And this is the journey that we have to be on right now, for whatever reason."
Human condition? Collective character? These are not the kinds of things James and Wade hear Rivers saying to his players, who have had no reason to believe they can win another championship and yet stand five games away from the kind of goal that James and Wade insisted was going to be so easy two Julys ago on this very court. Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven.
There were 15.2 seconds remaining, during which Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett would each make a pair of free throws to protect and extend their team's 90-88 lead. Rivers was diagramming the inbound pass as Alonzo Mourning, the retired Heat star who six years ago won a championship alongside Wade, looked out at the audience blindly from the video screens. "No excuses, no second chances, no regrets," he said. "Seize this moment. Make the decision right now to be a champion. This is the time when we stand tall and make a point about who we are."
Of course it's unfair to single out these videos, because every team in the NBA shows versions of the same theme. They are cited here and now because they had so clearly and dramatically lost their meaning. What worked for Riley in the 1980s and for Mourning in the new millennium has not yet worked for James and Wade. The fans had begun to leave by the dozens with 41.1 seconds remaining, when their team was trailing 90-86, which should have been a manageable deficit for two extraordinary stars. And yet to Riley's left were bare patches of expensive lower-bowl seats, shiny and bald, like hair torn out of the franchise's head. For all of their promise, the stars of Miami had generated little faith. When the Celtics were shooting free throws down the stretch, they were greeted by half-hearted boos that sounded nothing like what the Heat will hear Thursday in Boston.
Miami lost on a night when Chris Bosh returned to do more good than harm in his 14-minute series debut (though he was victimized defensively by Garnett at the end of the first half). Rondo was 3-of-15 from the floor and his routine 13 assists were offset in part by five turnovers. Pierce went 6-of-19 for his 19 points. The Celtics were outrebounded 49-39 and Allen (2-of-9) had to return to the locker room in the third quarter for treatment on his painful ankle. All the same, the Heat lost this game as surely as they lost Games 3 and 4 in Boston and as surely as they were fortunate to steal Game 2. They hadn't been in control since the opening night of this series, and yet they were eight-point favorites going into Game 5. Hadn't anyone grasped the larger trend?
Garnett (26 points and 11 rebounds) was magnificent and spry, and above all the Celtics believed in themselves and their plan. "Our execution down the stretch, defensively and offensively, the different lineups we threw out on the floor, going back to man and zone with guys that hadn't been in those positions," said Rivers, smiling at what had been accomplished on the way to the larger goal. "I asked a lot of our guys, maybe too much at times. And they came through."
It would be a tremendous story if Miami is able to pull itself together and win the next two games to return to the NBA Finals. But it wouldn't be nearly so inspiring or celebrated nationally as the story that will be told of the Celtics should they triumph. Two years later and the Heat are still defined by that hollow celebration they threw for themselves before they'd ever played a game together. Potential is just another empty word.