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Late-game collapses dooming Heat in NBA finals

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TIM REYNOLDS
June 10, 2011
— If the Miami Heat are going to recover and win this NBA championship, they may want to put the Dallas Mavericks away before the final minutes.

Otherwise, they could be in more than a little trouble.


Five games into the NBA finals, the Heat have had chances to win all five games. A case could be made that they should have won all five, especially after they held leads in every matchups in this series. But instead of having the title or being in the driver's seat in the championship chase, the Heat are on the cusp of elimination heading into Game 6 at Miami on Sunday night.


"There's obviously going to be some priorities in terms of closing out games, which we've been very good at the last two and a half months, and particularly during our playoff run," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Game 5 loss gave the Mavs a 3-2 series lead. "We haven't been able to do it consistently enough in this series. And that's something we'll address. That's been a fabric all season long, being able to work and improve on things."


Improvement is necessary, or else Dallas will hoist a trophy in Miami.


Weary from a week on the road, the Heat arrived home around 4:30 a.m. Friday. As expected, Spoelstra gave the team a day off, though many were expected at the team's headquarters for some work and treatment. That includes Dwyane Wade, who bruised his left hip in the first quarter on Thursday and managed to score a team-best 23 points.


The score hurt worse than the hip after Game 5.


Miami led 99-95 after Wade hit a 3-pointer with 4:37 left, and it seemed like the Heat were poised to take a stranglehold on the series. Except they collapsed again, following the script that doomed them in Games 2 and 4 as well.


"You go back and look at the film and see exactly what the breakdown was," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "I don't know how guys were getting open. It's just one game, a couple of plays. We're definitely capable of beating these guys and we'll figure it out."


Thing is, it's not just one game or a couple of plays.


It's an all-out trend in this series: Dallas is owning the final minutes.


Game 2, Dallas trailed 88-73 when Wade made a 3-pointer with 7:14 remaining. The Mavs outscored Miami 22-5 the rest of the way.


Game 4, Udonis Haslem's jumper with 10:12 left gave Miami a 74-65 lead. From there, Dallas went on a game-ending 21-9 run.


Game 5, the 99-95 Heat lead after Wade's 3 vanished quickly, with the Mavericks finishing with a 17-4 kick to move one win from the title.


"It seems like every series up to this point, we've had those huge games where we're able to get a lead and keep the momentum," Mavs center Tyson Chandler said. "That's a resilient team on the other side that we're against. They do a great job of coming back and applying pressure. When you think you got them out, they come back. You have to give them a lot of credit for that."


Some are giving credit. Others are giving the Heat, well, heat.


Dirk Nowitzki has 52 points in the fourth quarters of the finals, by far the most, doing it on 13 of 27 shooting from the field and an impressive 24-for-24 from the foul line. That's more free throws than the Heat have combined in fourth quarters during this series (22).


More disturbing for Miami may be that LeBron James has only 11 points in fourth quarters, as many as Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea.


"We've had a few breakdowns late in games in this series that we didn't have in the first three series," James said. "So it's something we know we can do. We just got to push through it. At this point we have no choice, honestly. We got two games left, and we worked hard all year to get home-court advantage. So we have to take advantage of it."


True, what seemed like a meaningless regular-season finale at Toronto, a game where Wade, James and Chris Bosh sat out, turned out to have colossal importance.


Had Miami not won that night, it would not have the home-court edge over the Mavericks. Now the Heat play at home with the pressure of needing to win twice for the NBA title.


"By definition, this certainly is a series of mental and physical endurance, and that's why it's a seven-game series," Spoelstra said Thursday night before the team left Dallas. "Each game is a possession game going down to the stretch. We were able to steal one here, and they did what they needed to do. They took care of the last two games going down the stretch. So we're going back to Miami, and we have to do the same thing."


It's happened before in the NBA, teams coming home down 3-2 and recovering to win the finals. Just last year, the Los Angeles Lakers were in that position against the Boston Celtics, rallying to take the championship.


Nowitzki seemed to be speaking with an abundance of caution Thursday night, noting that winning three does not guarantee winning four.


"It's not a best-of-five series. It's a best-of-seven," Nowitzki said. "So the first team to four wins. ... The series is not over. If you look at it really now, all that's happened, you can look they won their two home games, we won all three home games. That's how you look at it. They got two more. So far it looks like everybody protected their home court and they still have two games at home. So there's really nothing to celebrate."


Wade went to some of those Lakers-Celtics finals games last year in person, and his mind couldn't help but wander to what was potentially coming for the Heat last summer in free agency when this team was built for this moment, to win titles.


"The good thing about life and the good thing about this game, we get another opportunity, another crack at it," Wade said. "We know it's the thing that's going to either lose or win us a championship. It comes down to either not closing out games or closing it out. We have another game Sunday to be able to do that."


Or else.


"I don't have a choice now," Haslem said. "We'll go home and we'll play all out."



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