Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
The Miami Heat had that attitude entering Game 5, like you knew it would. It was summoning everything about “Heat culture” to the fore. “Our confidence ain’t going nowhere,” declared Jimmy Butler. And from Erik Spoelstra of the doubters: “We don’t give a shit what everybody else thinks.”
All good, all expected. Except all of it just sounded like rhetoric, like backs-to-the-wall desperation. Sounded like breaking glass in case of an emergency. Because this was an emergency.
Teams do not survive a 3-1 hole in the NBA Finals. It is all but a certifiable, historical guarantee. Thirty-five teams have tried over the decades. Thirty-four have failed. That meant, entering Friday night’s Finals Game 5, by the math, the Los Angeles Lakers had a 97.14 percent likelihood of winning this championship trophy, to Miami’s 2.86%. Well, guess what? The big-underdog Heat just gave itself a chance. Still not an enviable one. Not a likely one. But a fighting chance.
The Heat pulled within 3-2 in this best-of-7 Finals with Friday’s excruciatingly dramatic 111-108 had-to-have-it elimination-game victory in the Orlando bubble.
Jimmy Butler’s 35-point triple-double led Miami, offsetting LeBron James’ 40-point show for L.A. Two heavyweights, to the final bell. Miami’s run at its fourth franchise crown has come out of nowhere, following a season in which the Heat hadn’t even made the playoffs. And, improbably, it lives on.
This whole weird, delayed, pandemic-wracked season was a surprise, a gift, and it continues. LeBron’s fourth championship with three different teams and the Lakers’ record-tying 17th — both denied. Or at least postponed, until Sunday night’s Game 6 … or Tuesday’s Game 7?
After steamrolling through three earlier playoff opponents including No. 1 seed Milwaukee with league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Heat got unlucky. That’s fair to say. All-star Bam Adebayo missed a chunk of the Finals injured and key player Goran Dragic missed more than that. There was no real logical reason to see a depleted Miami beating a team fronted by LeBron and Anthony Davis. The Heat still might not. It would take two more wins in a row.
But Friday night made it seem possible, at least.
The Heat is going to outwork you. Out-want you. Be mentally tougher. That’s the crux of the “culture.” And it must sound like nonsense to other fans in other cities. But how else to explain a fifth-seeded team not at full strength doing this against LeBron and A.D? The Lakers on Friday donned their rarely worn black “Mamba” jerseys designed by Kobe himself in his honor, his memory in their hearts. This was the closeout game, the one that was supposed to end with champagne.
Instead it ended with their first defeat in those Mamba jerseys. We mentioned earlier that in NBA Finals history 34 of 35 teams with 3-1 series leads have won.
Notably, the lone anomaly, the only team down 3-1 to win three in a row for the crown, was LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers beating Golden State in 2016. He knew what it felt like to administer that pain. He doesn’t plan on being on the receiving end of it — although Friday put him one game closer.
Miami has been down in all three NBA Finals it has won.
• Down 2-0 to in 2006.
• Down 1-0 in 2012.
• Down 2-1 and 3-2 in 2013.
• Down 3-2 again, now, in 2020.
The odds are against the Heat, still. No doubt. But is this a team you want to doubt or count out?