MIAMI -- On the white boards inside the Miami Heat locker room, there were two messages written in red marker."OFFENSE: Jump all over them w/transition" it read on one. "DEFENSE: Overwhelm them with our energy" it read on the other. They waited their entire lives for this night in this city. To play ball this deep into June. They had been there with the Dolphins, but that was two generations ago. They had it with the Marlins, but that really didn't count because the team represents the entire state, not just the 350,000 that make up the city. The energy, as read in Pat Riley's handwriting, pulsed through the building. It was in Swizz's beats on the Heat's intro and DJ Irie's beat selection throughout the game. It was in the Heat dancers' 5-inch wide white tops and everyone wearing "WHITE HEAT" shirts. It was in D-Wade's reverse "he really didn't hang on the rim, why'd you give him a tech?" dunk and Shaq making his first two free throws. It was in the Godfather-recreated scene on the Jumbotron where the horse head in the bed is a maverick and the face of the man in the bed is Mark Cuban. It was in the "referees suck" chant the crowd gave Jack Nies after he tech'd up GP. For three hours, a nervous energy engulfed the Miami Heat.
And somewhere in between, God found a place to be devastation.It was supposed to be the difference between playing ball in the AmericanAirlines Arena and playing in the AmericanAirlines Center. The Miami Heat were supposed to make that distinction. Show the world that MIA didn't stand for Missing In Action. And until Gary Payton sank that 18-foot jump shot, and Shaquille O'Neal made the two biggest free throws of his career, and Dwyane Wade grabbed the rebound of Dirk Nowitzki's missed free throw like his life depended on it and then knocked that last-second oop out of Josh Howard's hands, it seemed as if the only distinction between the first two games and this one was the energy. Because the outcome, regardless of the final score, was about to be.
"Where's He been?" someone asked me in the middle of the first quarter. When asked I wasn't sure if the "he" he was referring to was an italicized he or one with the capital "H." But I looked at the person who asked and saw that their eye contact was on Dwyane Wade, not the He who gave Dwyane his gifts. He was 13 points and five rebounds into his 42 and 13 night that would eventually bring the Heat within one game of making this a three-game series. And when broken down to the final compound, this series is all about him, not Him: Dwyane Wade. As Game 3 proved, yes, it is important for Shaquille to give the Heat more than five points on three shots. Yes, it is important for J-Will thru Alonzo Mourning to have solid games. But it is imperative if Miami wants to do this, to tie this, to lead and possibly win this, for FRP (Fly Robbins Phli -- a hometown moniker D-Wade has been given from his peoples in Robbins, Ill.) to impose himself on this. The entire series.
|Watch a replay of Game 3 Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.|
He needs to score 38, grab 12, drop eight and yankee clip three every game and make the Mavs wish they had lost to PHX in the conference finals rather than face this. Because at this point he controls the destiny of this team's future, not Shaq. That's why the 3 from the corner to open the fourth quarter showed that he wasn't going to be the reason the Heat lost. Or the reason they lose another game in this series.But it's going to be hard for the Heat to shift. Maybe impossible. The mindset of this team, regardless of what is written on boards in the locker room, is that everything runs through Big first. "Establish the big man early," is the coach speak. "Make sure Shaq gets fed the ball," is the teammates' gospel. In Shaq's own words, he said the Heat lose whenever D-Wade gets 50 or more touches. But D-Wade's getting 50 points is a whole 'nother thing. But after watching Wade do what he do in Game 3, after watching him attack the basket at will and impose his will on the Mavs through shots, boards and blocked game-winning attempts, the conclusion at this point has to be understood that in order for the Heat to repeat this game, they need to mentally, physically and psychologically make Wade the leader of this team. On the fly. In the middle of a series. Re-brainwash themselves and give D-Wade the team that is Shaq-owned, Diesel-driven. It is something a coach would never do. But when you are down 0-2 in a series and down 13 points with 6:15 left in Game 3 of that same series and you watch a man, a teammate with five fouls, literally will your team another day, another game, at what point do you wait to say: Maybe it's time to flip from Plan A to Plan B? Option 2 to Option 1? Maybe it's time to recognize that the kid is not only that good, but the kid is that ready. Ready to carry the weight. All 325 of it. But is it going to happen? Only God, David Stern and three 50-point games from D-Wade know.
As they spoke afterward, some things became evident.
"I'm a true believer," Riley said. "I know players however we can play better."And when he mentioned D-Wade? "Overcome fatigue and intrigue," were the words he chose. "Incredible," was the final word he used. "They just outhustled us," is how Avery Johnson broke it down before he went semi-ballistic over the 16 offensive rebounds his team allowed. And Jason Terry? He used the e-word. "Give them credit," Terry said at the podium, fresh as Marketplace vegetables. "They came out with a lot of energy. We knew they were going to come out with everything tonight. They came out like they wanted it [more]. With five minutes left, they were the better team." Which brings us back to God. Back to where this all started. Because for some reason, it's in games like this where either the spirituality of the game exposes itself or those involved just get spiritual. Gary Payton said, "We're a team with faith in one another." Pat Riley said, "the basketball gods were good to us." Dwyane Wade said, "We're a very strong-willed team, we all believe in each other when we're down and out, we always feel we can come back and individually believing in God and believing that He will give you the strength to do go out there and do it." But it was back inside that locker room where the original messages awaited them; before the game is where the seeds of belief can be found. Taped above the stall that is Mourning's, there is another message of faith. Laminated on a small index-sized card: Forgetting what is behind and staring toward what is ahead. I press toward the goal to win. The prize for which God has called me. Still, God's prize, in this locker room, remains three games away. Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has a weekly segment on "Cold Pizza" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.