Jun 20 2012 11:05AM

From Cramps To Champs?


Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

I can hear Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra supplying the voice-over one day for a LeBron James POWERade commercial.

"We had to help him onto the sidelines."

Cue Mike Breen in the background, telling the audience that LeBron James is suffering from cramp-like symptoms, before we hear Coach Spo's voice again.

"It made me a believer."

Preach, Erik! Preach!

"Not in luck. Or fate. But in the will to win."

Who's fourth-quarter Mr. Clutch now, everybody?

"You win from within. You win with LeBron."

Granted, Gatorade may sue for plagiarism, but this was indeed LeBron's Michael-fighting-off-the-flu moment.

It was his time to step up, ala Willis Reed ... and he did ... even though LeBron literally couldn't step, with the cramp putting his body on lockdown with 5:15 to go and the Heat only up by 2.

But with the game on the line and cramps taking over his body with 4:05 left in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James returned to the game and left us with the most compelling memory of these 2012 NBA Finals to date.

He limped back in the game and hit the clutch, go-ahead-and-stay-ahead three-pointer--WILLIS REEEED FOR THREEEE!!!--to give Miami a three-point lead over OKC with 2:50 to go, and the eventual 104-98 victory, putting the Heat up, 3-1, in this best-of-seven series.

It was--to plagiarize someone else this time--BIG.

"Because of this journey that we've been on, " said Spoelstra in the Game 4 postgame press conference, "and a lot of the adversities that we've faced this year, getting knocked down on the canvas--we've all gotten to the point, whatever it takes. It might not be textbook. It might not be the exact way we want to. Just contribute and help make it happen.

"And like I said, that was LeBron's sheer will and competitiveness to make a play when he really wasn't physically able to be out there."

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this is your Miami Heat.

The team we all envisioned when they first assembled.

It took awhile for them to arrive at this moment.

But here they are.

One win away from the 2012 NBA championship.

Not two. Not three. Not four.

One win away.

It took sacrifice to get here.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all gave up millions to play together.

D-Wade gave up his team status as The Man this year to give James the freedom to dominate.

Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and countless other teammates sacrificed money and minutes and shots to be a part of this special team that is now one win away from calling itself champs.

At Sunday's press conference, Bosh said it best, when he stated, "The conversation we had at the end of the regular season was really just about, 'What are you willing to sacrifice in order to to win?'"

Yes, that was a much different Miami Heat team then. You have to go back in time frame to fully appreciate how far they've come.

The April 2012 Miami Heat would not be beating Oklahoma City right now, just like the June 2011 Heat could not beat the 2011 Mavericks a year ago.

Those old Heat teams lacked identity. Had multiple personalities. Never utilized stable lineups.

Why, just in the 2011-12 season alone, 14 different Heat players started games in the regular season.

Nine different Miami players started games in the 2012 NBA Playoffs ... or have we forgotten the Dexter Pittman experiment already?

It wasn't until Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals that Spoelstra finally unveiled the starting-and-closing lineup that he had wanted to initiate months earlier, but had to convince his biggest stars--James and Bosh--that position changes were necessary to move forward.

Yes, it wasn't until Game 2 that Coach Spo officially went small, starting Bosh at the 5, James at the 4, Battier at the 3, Wade at the 2 and Chalmers at the 1.

That was truly when Miami became the aggressive-and-attacking team it needed to be on offense, while also turning the Heat up on D with unmatched intensity.

Truth be told, LeBron James never wanted to be a full-time power forward.

Chris Bosh never wanted to be a full-time center.

But when circumstances demanded change, both acquiesced ... and next thing you know, the Miami Heat found its true identity and hasn't looked back since.

Bosh, James, Battier, Wade and Chalmers ... It's the Big 3 plus two of the biggest clutch performers in NCAA history.

They play fast. They play furious.

They are battle-tested veterans.

Five prime-time players who love all of the lights.

In some ways, it reminds me of the 2008 USA Basketball Olympic team that conquered the world with fast-breaking offense created by flying, ballhawk defense.

That team also had Bosh at the 5, James at the 4 and Wade at the 2.

Yes, indeed. THIS truly is the team Miami Heat fans have been waiting to see for two years now.

Much has been written about the maturation of the Heat's Big 3 and their past off-court antics, but this story isn't about that.

It's about the on-court actions that have gotten Miami to this very point where the Heat is now one win away from an NBA championship.

It's about LeBron James shaking off his disdain for the power forward position a month ago when Bosh went down with an injury, saying that playing against bigger guys was "taxing," but that he was now "up for the challenge."

It was about Bosh acknowledging in Sunday's Game 3 press conference that he never wanted to play center. But when Coach Spo asked him to move to the 5 spot for the good of this team, Bosh relented and took on the position with slobbering desire.

"It was just something that I had really been fighting for most of my career," said Bosh, "but not this year."

Consequently, not only was Miami now able to match up with Oklahoma City's tireless smallball units, the Heat was now able to put the Thunder on its heels.

In Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, Oklahoma City played 23 minutes of smallball to the Heat's 17, with OKC running Miami off the court, 105-94.

Bosh was still coming off the bench for Miami, having only played four times since going down May 13 for nine playoff games with an abdominal strain.

But Coach Spo sensed this was the perfect time to go with his smallest and sleekest--and best--lineup yet, a combo that had not truly been tested.

Bosh, James, Battier, Wade and Chalmers had played only 121 minutes together all season long, despite the five players leading the team in regular-season and playoff minutes combined.

So Spo decided he was going to shrink his lineup in Game 2--start all five together for the first time, play them all between 39 and 42 minutes, while playing collective smallball against the Thunder for 40 minutes.

The aggressive-and-attacking Heat shut down the Thunder in their own arena, 100-96, stealing home-court advantage and tying the series at 1-1.

Spo played a similar hand in Game 3 back in Miami--playing his newfound starting lineup 35-to-45 minutes each--and got the same result, winning 91-85, while his team played a collective 45 minutes of smallball

And in Game 4 Tuesday in Miami, Coach Spo went all-in once again in this go-small poker game, now playing 47 minutes of smallball as the Heat won, 104-98, with the starting five playing between 34 and 44 minutes apiece.

In Game 4, James was on pace to play 46 minutes and 26 seconds--not coming out of the game until his injury forced him to do so.

Remember when James said this new position was taxing?

Well, the body taxation probably increased exponentially recently when you look at all the crazy minutes James had played in all previous playoff games: 44, 44, 42, 46, 48, 45, 45, 48, 43, 48, 44, 45, 38, 44, 40, 43, 43, 40, 41, 36. 41, 32.

That's not just taxing. That's pure torture on a body.

But such is the price to pay for those wanting to become champions.

James' teammates needed him for the game's first 43 minutes just to hold off non-stop, 45-minute attack of Russell Westbrook, who finished with 43 points on 32 shots, with 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

Save for some costly end-of-the-game miscues, it was a heroic effort for Westbrook.

But it may be lost in the NBA history books when mythical stories are told of the immortals Reed, Jordan ... and now James

The three-time NBA MVP James gave his team every last drop of energy he had, until dehydration literally wiped him off the court with 55 seconds to go and Miami leading by 3 with the ball.

Yet thanks to the smallball system in operation, the Heat had all the necessary ballhawk defense it needed, eventually closing the game with five turnovers in the game's final four minutes.

The smallball setup--with or without James in the game's final minutes--also gave Miami the great shooters and great attackers necessary to create great spacing all around the floor, which led to the key assisted layup (Wade to Bosh for the lefty layup with 3:42 to go), the memorable pull-up three (hobbled James with 2:53 remaining) and the one-on-one driving layup (Wade with 2:18 left) to cap Miami's 7-0 run, giving the Heat a 5-point lead.

Chalmers would outscore his counterpoint, Westbrook, 5-4, in the final two minutes to close Miami's third straight victory in this series.

It was a big, efficient effort for Miami's small Big 5.

James had 26 points on 20 shots; Chalmers had 20 points on 15 shots; Wade had 25 points on 19 shots; Bosh had 13 points and 9 rebounds; Battier helped hold Kevin Durant to 28 points on 19 shots, which was good enough to keep explosive OKC below the 100-point mark for the third straight game.

"It's a big time team win," said James in the Game 4 postgame presser. "We needed everyone's effort. And everyone came up and made a play--from the starters, including Rio's spectacular game [Mario Chalmers] to Norris Cole as well. When we were down in that first quarter, Norris came in and gave us a spark--hit a couple threes, got into the lane and got a layup. He made some plays and kind of helped us get into a rhythm.

"It's a big time team win. We needed every point, we needed every rebound and everything that everyone had to get it."

They truly have formed into one fantastic team led by a focused Fab 5.

If they can win once more in Games 5, 6 or 7--they will become NBA champions.

I am beginning to think nothing can cramp Miami's style now.