Those comments proved to be hollow two years ago, when Miami lost in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. Time will tell if James and Wade can back up those words this time around, on the brink of elimination against the San Antonio Spurs.
“We’re in the same position going back home with Game 6 on our home floor. So we’re going to see if we’re a better ballclub and if we’re better prepared for this moment,” Wade said late Sunday night after Miami fell to San Antonio, 114-104, in Game 5. “Everything happens for a reason. And this is not a bad reason at all to go home for Game 6 on your home floor.”
Since his mystifying disappearance in that humbling loss to Dallas, James appeared to have matured into a player who has complete comfort in his abilities as the unquestioned best player in the game. But even after winning his first championship last season and adding two more most valuable player awards and an Olympic gold medal, James finds himself facing elimination from another opponent with aging stars who realize their window for more titles is close to being slammed shut.
Tim Duncan once told James that the league would be his one day, but after a six-year wait following their last title, the Spurs aren’t interested in becoming another conquest on the four-time MVP’s waltz to the Hall of Fame.
The Spurs have closed out two Finals opponents on the road and knocked out two others in at least six games, but they have never needed to win a championship in six or seven games away from the comforts of home.
Duncan, 37, is one win away from a fifth ring — which would tie him with Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and George Mikan — and the usually stoic, three-time Finals MVP revealed his passion on the third possession of Game 5, when he caught a pass from Manu Ginobili and threw down a vicious one-handed dunk.
“I think every one of us wants this very badly from the top on down,” Duncan said. “We’re trying to play that way. We just need to put it on the floor and understand the kind of energy and the kind of aggression they’re going to come with next game, and counter that with continuing to play well.”
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich made the latest and greatest adjustment in a wacky and unpredictable series that has featured four lopsided games as he gave Ginobili his first start of the season despite concerns over the 35-year-old Argentine’s health and deteriorating talent. Ginobili responded with his best performance of the season, with 24 points and 10 assists.
But even with Tony Parker playing through the pain of a strained right hamstring and scoring a game-high 26 points and Danny Green, the unlikely front-runner for Finals MVP, needing just five games to set a Finals record with 25 three-pointers, Popovich has never been one to get ahead of himself.
“I never think of it as that close. I always think of it as far, far away,” Popovich said. “So I don’t have that problem. I don’t get excited about, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re right there.’ That doesn’t enter my head. What I think about is how difficult that next game is going to be, and how many things we have to do well to get that done. And I think that’s a much more healthier approach.”
Wade has been in the same position as the Spurs two times before and can relate to the emotions that they are feeling on the brink of a championship.
“All I thought about was, ‘All we have to do is win one more and we’re champions,’ ” Wade said. “So obviously you’re going to think that way. You also have a game to play. And so I’m sure this team, they’ve been here before many times. They understand winning that last game is one of the hardest things you’re going to do. And we understand it as well.”
The Heat won 27 in a row this season but is now unable to win two in a row in the postseason. Miami has alternated wins and losses since the beginning of the Eastern Conference finals, but will have to win two straight to repeat as champions. Since the Finals went to a 2-3-2 format in 1985, the home team has won the last two games three times: the Lakers defeated Boston in 2010 and Detroit in 1988 and Houston beat New York in 1994.
“It’s a great opportunity for both teams: for them to close this out for them to win it, and for us to force a Game 7,” James said. “We look forward to the challenge. We’ve been here before. We’ve been on both sides of the fences. See what happens, and we got an opportunity to do something special.”