LeBron James and the NBA’s most gifted team remind me of a confused GPS. Every time I think the Miami Heat is taking the quickest, simplest route to its destination, the Big Three shoot past the intersection they were supposed to turn right at, the coordinates have to be reset, and that annoying voice interrupts the serenity of a peaceful drive:
The last scintillating, seven minutes of Game 2 of the NBA Finals involved a lot of “recalculating” in the psyche of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They inexplicably got lost, frittering away a 15-point lead to the Dallas Mavericks. Now they face Games 3, 4, and 5 away from the security of American Airlines Arena in Miami.
Dallas is a different Cuban country than South Beach. There is no Gloria Estefan singing on the Jumbotron. There is rabid noise when the home team starts making shots, nasty handmade signs that poke snarky fun at visiting players and, most dangerous of all, Dirk Nowitzki, the greatest 7-foot deadeye shooter in the history of the game.
If Dirk completely irked the Heat by snatching Game 2 away from Miami with seven points in the final minute, what’s going to happen if the Wonder Triplets’ powers don’t activate on the road?
What’s going to happen if that internal GPS, programmed to take the Chosen One to Coronation Street, is broken – and instead of celebrating the championship maturation of a basketball wunderkind, everything instead becomes wunderbar for Dirk and the Mavs in Big D?
Here’s what I worry about if I’m the owner, Micky Arison, or the president, Pat Riley, or the coach, Erik Spoelstra (or, for that matter, anyone connected with the Heat organization at any level):
What if my guys have learned everything they need to about becoming NBA champs — dealing with title expectations they incredibly set for themselves in their maiden season together; overcoming regular season adversity; and, finally, the hiss of a smelling-blood media who so wants the homecoming kings of the league to fall on their face at the senior prom — and yet, the Big Three are still not mentally strong enough to win it all this season?
What if their psyches are still too fragile to immediately put aside the aftermath of a meltdown on their home court on the NBA’s biggest stage, and they shockingly go three and out on the road?
Not possible? Probably. But what if LeBron lets his five turnovers and dreadful shot selection at the end of Game 2 linger in his mind? Or if Bosh dwells on his 9-for-34 shooting in the series, and the fact that no one in the United States beyond someone directly related to Bosh thought he should have been guarding Nowitzki on the final play, in which a hesitation dribble left him watching the game-winning layup?
What if Wade starts doubting the stars that came to play with him in the clutch, to the point he feels he needs to force the issue by himself with the game on the line?
Cohesion and chemistry are thus far hallmarks of the Heat’s postseason run, one that has included remarkable Games 4 and 5 closeouts of Boston and Chicago in the second and third round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. But before Miami was that team, it showed a penchant for becoming discombobulated at times during the now 100-game grind.
It’s not like more well-rounded and talented teams haven’t collapsed before in the Finals because they couldn’t handle the pressure of a white-hot spotlight dredging up their defects in June. Remember Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in 2004? Dumped in five games by starless Detroit in the greatest Finals upset in almost three decades. The Mavericks, with a younger Nowitzki and Jason Terry, fell apart after they were six minutes away with a 13-point lead from going up 3-0 in 2006 against the Heat. They lost their composure and four straight.
This could all be moot by late Sunday night in Dallas if Miami uses those last seven minutes of Game 2 as kerosene to ignite its passion and purpose the rest of the series. And, let’s be clear, the Heat has been the better team for 113 of 120 minutes through two games. Instead of the worst possible scenario for LeBron, swept in the middle three games of the Finals and never returning to play a Game 6 or Game 7 in Miami this season, he and his Team Collusion mates could turn the tables and take three on Dallas’s home floor for the championship. That would make them the first team to accomplish the feat in the Finals since the Lakers crushed Philadelphia in 2001.
But here’s some amateur-psychologist food for thought. Taking questions on the dais after Game 2, LeBron and Wade bristled before an inquisition about whether they celebrated their 15-point fourth-quarter lead too jubilantly in front of the Dallas bench. The Heat took heat, remember, for going berserk earlier in the playoffs — acting as if they had won PowerBall and the World Cup after dispatching of Boston in just the second round.
This could all be written off as old fuddy-duddies not giving new-jack kids some leeway. But you could tell this bothered LeBron, this perception that King Fame and his court are rubbing it in.
Dirty little secret of these finals: He doesn’t like playing the villain. LeBron, contrary to all the mean-mugging, scowls, sneers, volcanic roars after violent dunks and yes, “the Decision,” actually prefers to be liked by everyone. In that vein, he’s not Reggie Miller or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, all of whom craved being the enemy and loved drawing the ire and even anger of a crowd on the road.
More than most superstars, the venom and vitriol affect him, because he’s a decent young man who understandably worries about what people think about him. (He really has just a couple of character flaws in his life and game: his ability to choose friends and — oh yeah — he walks more than Moses.)
With this postseason run I’m almost convinced he has put that sensitive, thin-skin part of himself aside to do his job, like his predecessors who were assassins on the road. But I don’t know if he is there yet.
For that matter, Bosh, who’s lost more tears over regular season games this year than moviegoers during the opening weekend of “Terms of Endearment” in 1983, is a big question mark in the mentally tough department.
Really, what if the Heat’s Big Three have all the tools to get where they want to go but they can’t get out of their own heads long enough to make it to their requested journey yet?
If I’m LeBron and a fragile team psyche is the only thing keeping me from hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy this June, that would just be flat-out painful to hear that voice intone, “Recalculating – 2012.”