MIAMI — Depending upon who you talk to, the best or worst thing about a team put together by Pat Riley, coached by his hand-picked pupil and starring LeBron James is undeniably the spectacle, the daily drama — the overriding feeling that they’ve coaxed everyone watching into believing it’s so much more than basketball.
See, in most rational minds, Sunday night is Game 2 of the NBA Finals, a chance for LeBron and his teammates to get even before heading to San Antonio for the series’ three middle games.
But here, where the Heat is always on, it’s something larger, more ominous, the latest referendum on an era. If the Spurs somehow go up 2-0 on Miami and siphon the sound out of the Heat’s home crowd again, doom, derision and all the old demons await in South Texas.
That never happened to Michael or Kobe.
If LeBron falls to 1-3 on the game’s grandest stage, “not one, not two, not three . . . ” doesn’t become his premature and often-mocked boast of the multiple championships he planned to win with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; it’s a depressing compilation of Finals losses by the most gifted and breathtaking player since Jordan or Bryant.
Sure, that gaudy gold-ball trophy is at stake. But also on the line are a player’s legacy and a franchise patriarch’s all-in wager — dynasty or dust.
“I don’t know if we’re supposed to win by the standards of people around the world,” Ray Allen said Friday afternoon, “but I know LeBron has great pressure on him. He’s been criticized since he’s been 15 or 14 or 13 or whatever. They just want to compare him to other people. So the more he wins or doesn’t win, those comparisons either make sense or they don’t.
“The pressure for us is . . . we want to win and we have to win [for each other.] But not because of what other people say or think.”
No, because, as Erik Spoelstra, Riley’s sideline successor, said earlier this week, “This is the world we live in.” This is the world Riley created, why so many of the game’s greats deigned to play for him: because they wanted winning to mean as much to them.
Once a player signs on for the Riley Doctrine, basketball becomes deeper, more involved, beyond committed. Established early in his days with Magic and Kareem and crystallized in 1992 while he coached the Knicks — “I believe there is winning and there is misery, and even when I win I’m miserable,” he said then — you don’t get to the NBA finals. You’re “the winner” or one of 29 losers. You don’t capture silver in Riley’s world; you lose gold.
Outside the Heat locker room there is no motivational “Play Like a Champion Today” placard, like Notre Dame. No, that’s too soft for Riles, who instead had this inscription carved in the wall: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
Better swing that ball to the open man on the weak side, no, ’Bron?
Looking back, Riley’s morality-play Miami was indeed the perfect place for a player with a “Chosen 1” tattoo across his deltoids, a player so special his shoe company didn’t just promote him; it bore “Witness.”
The flip side, of course, is LeBron’s two-pronged opponents: the foe tugging on his cape in front of him, Tim Duncan and the Spurs, and the legendary players behind him.
“For LeBron, winning back-to-back titles is not as big as winning multiple titles,’’ Shaquille O’Neal told the Daily News’s Mitch Lawrence the other day. “He’s got to keep winning titles and get more and more, because when it comes down to it he’s going to be measured against Kobe and Michael when his career is over. It’s more than doing just the back-to-back. He’s always going to be compared to those two players. Michael and Kobe. So he’s got to keep winning and winning.’’
And winning — or be miserable.
LeBron already has one more MVP than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, a phenomenal feat at just 28 years of age. But the real gauge of his worthiness as a great player is that he now has five fewer rings than Michael and four fewer rings than Kobe.
It’s just Game 2 everywhere else in the reasoned sports world. But in this percolating, pressure-filled bubble, the crucible of this dream Heat season is about to commence — a now-or-never, white-hot stand on the home front.
The Spurs have won seven in a row. San Antonio hasn’t lost since May 12 and is a remarkable 41-7 at home this season. Miami needs Game 2 like nothing else in the universe, because the notion of having to win two in San Antonio just to get back home for Games 6 and 7 is an unthinkable gauntlet at the moment.
“You have to go through it,” Spoelstra said, doing his boss proud, upping the emotional ante. “There is no easy way. The journey is tough.”
The Heat coach was asked how long LeBron could guard Parker to make Spoelstra feel comfortable.
“Whatever it takes,” he said. “That’s my deal with LeBron. He understands. . . . Wherever we need it. We have 14 days left. Whatever it takes.”
This is the world they live in, after all, the world Riley created, Spoelstra carries on and LeBron now lords over. The doctrine, the covenant of taking it all too seriously, and the tremendous tradeoff they have all signed on for, only they can truly feel: that if it kills the soul this much to lose it must be even more euphoric to stand on the podium and call yourself champion.
For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.