Posted May 18 2012 10:48AM - Updated May 18 2012 6:49PM
INDIANAPOLIS -- The glass on the fire-extinguisher doors in the vicinity of the vistors' locker room survived unscathed Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, so there's that for the Miami Heat.
Dwyane Wade played as if he had been suspended following his knockdown of Darren Collison two nights earlier. Wade fussed and fumed his way through the most nightmarish 37 minutes of his NBA postseason life in Game 3 against the Indiana Pacers and looked, during a near-flashpoint on the sideline, like he wanted to go all Amar'e on his coach.
But he didn't. Wade didn't smack any inanimate objects with either hand, either. Beyond his Fred Sanford legs and hundred routine aches and pains, the shooting guard seemed to be suffering mostly from some short-term memory loss by the end of the night.
Asked about the heated exchange he had with coach Erik Spoelstra in the Heat's timeout with 7:14 left in the third quarter, the one captured by ESPN cameras, witnessed and heard by courtside spectators and all over the Internet now, Wade said: "Uh, I don't even remember what y'all talking about."
That's right, Juwan Howard, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James and Udonis Haslem pulled Wade away and tried to calm him down from nothing.
James winked at all those critics of his late-game capabilities by exiting with 2:43 left after scoring six points in 19:20 in the second half. Without Chris Bosh and with Wade flailing, the Heat had ridden James hard and put him up exhausted just to reach halftime tied at 43-43. From there, the league's MVP missed three 3-pointers and his only free throw. He spent the final minutes pulling tape and sweatbands off while acting as Miami morale officer for some downcast teammates on the side.
Spoelstra stayed laser-locked in, did what he could to spin the Wade kerfuffle later and probably was keenly aware that team president Pat Riley and the franchise's power brokers were just four rows behind him, maybe 15 feet to his left all night. Former Heat warrior Alonzo Mourning grimaced and fidgeted in his tight arena seat like he wanted to run down and grab onto Roy Hibbert's leg. Owner Micky Arison and family had to push their way through the surging, happy, yellow-shirted Indiana fans to wring hands or grind molars somewhere quieter.
This is about the time someone cues the calliope music. Or better yet, through the wonders of multimedia, dusts off this. The guys who took offense at the most minor of Indiana celebrating after Game 2 (Wade did, anyway) might cringe and look in the mirror over the gap between what they did then and where they are now.
They are the subjects of second-guessing and armchair psychoanalysis, the targets for doubters and worriers, the objects of mockery and ridicule. They are all of that and more, because the Miami Heat never are just a basketball team that needs to tweak some X's & O's. Or hit some J's (they're 5-for-42 from 3-point range in this series). With this bunch, and those who follow them, it's as much about the I's & U's and speculating on all the Y's.
Lest, y'know, this whole Miami endeavor ends up as a big T's.
"It's the hyperbole of the NBA playoffs," backup Shane Battier said in a subdued locker room. "When you lose a game, the tendency is, well, 'you've got to start over from scratch.' Then when your game plans work and you win a game, 'you've got everything figured out.' The answer lies in the middle somewhere."
Miami's Big Three promised eight NBA championships -- the "not two, not three..." count-up ran all the way through seven, remember -- and instead, they look headed to 0-2. And anyone from their traveling party or Internet faithful who stands up to make some noi-oise! about Pacers scrub Lance Stephenson making a choke sign when James missed a free throw Thursday night needs to sit their butts down fast.
The Heat have a lot worse on its plate than that:
• Bosh isn't walking through that door anytime soon. His abdominal strain injury might wipe out the rest of the postseason, or however long Miami can make that last, and it surely won't have him rescuing them now. So long considered the third wheel in star power and charisma, Bosh's height, inside game and halfcourt offense have been critically absent, maybe even fatally.
Hibbert doesn't romp around the lane to 19 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots if Bosh is present and accounted for. And James and Wade both offensively play off him in ways -- grinding, methodical playoff ways -- they don't off each other, other than on breaks. Where the Heat are, down 1-2, is lousy for them, great for Bosh's status within the group.
• Wade looks old and incapable of taking over a series the way he did six years ago when he discombobulated the Dallas Mavericks all the way to an NBA championship. He's been grumpy and, once among the most likable of the league's stars, hard for casual fans to take with his incessant complaining to and lobbying of referees. He has been acting out via hard, petulant fouls -- on Kobe Bryant in the All-Star Game, on Chicago's Richard Hamilton late in the season and with the body-block flagrant of Collison in Game 2 out of frustration.
Said Haslem: "We've got a lot of alpha males in this locker room. We're going to encourage each other and get on each other's case when need be. But it's all constructive criticism. I don't think it's personal with anybody. Emotions get high. It's the playoffs."
In Game 3, Wade wasn't running down anyone, including Paul George on a run-out, the play that triggered the flare-up with Spoelstra. And he was oddly passive, searching, with his frequently too-short shots, stymied by George out top, the spectre of Hibbert inside and the nagging limbs beneath him. He wound up with as many points (five) as turnovers and on the wrong side of the Miami role players: Chalmers, Joel Anthony and Wade combined for 40 points but in a most unusual way. (Chalmers and Anthony, frankly, earned "Get Out of the Doghouse Free" for the balance of the postseason.)
• James can run from the pressure but he cannot hide. He does miss those free throws late in games, whether fatigue or nerves are the primary culprit. He does pass the ball on plays in which the telestrator jockeys can later draw straight lines between him and the rim. He was such a facilitator at the end Thursday, greeting teammates as they came back to the bench, pulling them up out of their seats at the final horn, you were reminded of Joe Louis and his gig at Caesars Palace back in the '70s.
But there might be a silver lining for James in all these Miami thunder clouds. Bosh is gone, Wade is MIA, right? That means James can go back to Cleveland mode, when he could -- and would -- take on entire NBA teams by himself. No more divvying up of opportunities. No more worrying about sharing when the only priority now is surviving.
It's a ton to expect and it surely wasn't what he signed up for 22 months ago, but if the ring is important to him -- he more than any of the others will be defined by it -- then the LeBron locomotive is his clear and best shot to get one this spring. Or fail trying.
• Spoelstra might want to consult Magic Johnson or Mike Brown for the latest on his job security. When Riley walked out of the visiting coaches' office late Thursday, some waiting media member cracked, "He's headed to the podium to announce that he'll be taking over the rest of the way." It's out of the question -- it is, right? -- but Spoelstra's grasp of his team and their personalities seems as tenuous as ever.
Maybe the peevish exchange with Wade is standard-issue stuff in NBA huddles, but the off-the-wall move to Dexter Pittman as starting center was not merely a grasp but a lunge at some elusive straw. Indiana was on its way to an 11-2 start and, yes, while the Heat righted themselves with a 24-6 quarter close, the damage had been done, a tone had been set. Points is points, right?
With the extra day between Games 3 and 4, Indiana coach Frank Vogel eased off the pedal and gave his crew Friday off. Spoelstra's plan was to take the Heat back into the gym -- until a late morning change, with practice and media availability being canceled. What his bunch really needed, from all appearances, was an old-fashioned, steer-this-plane-to-Las Vegas breather, one of Riley's old tricks to release pressure and build bonds.
One Heat insider who knows the dynamics of the team well said: "If Riley thought that would help, he'd do it." The problem is, this is the Miami Heat. If they did that and lost, the Internet would melt down. Besides, the way drama follows them, what happens with them in Vegas or anywhere else doesn't stay there.
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