- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- June 13, 2006, and May 31, 2007.
Those two dates are why the Miami Heat continue to believe they can win the title this season and perhaps several more over the next five seasons. In effect, they represent the core motivation of the Heat's free-agency plan and coup.
The first date was Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals, the moment when Dwyane Wade etched himself into the league's history books with a closing performance that single-handedly turned the championship series around. Constantly attacking, Wade scored 12 of his 42 points in the last six minutes to lead a 13-point fourth quarter comeback that emotionally gutted the Dallas Mavericks.
The second date was Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals a year later when LeBron James put on a one-man scoring show against one of the league's best defenses to execute a stunning upset to reach the NBA Finals. In a stat that will probably be on James' Hall of Fame plaque someday, James scored 29 of the Cavs' last 30 points in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods to give the team a 3-2 series lead and break the No. 1 seed's back.
They are two of the most dominant individual playoff performances in memory. It is part of the imagination that drives their individual popularity among fans and respect among peers. Those performances even inspired each other, which ultimately played a part in their wanting to team up.
What Wade and James did as wing scorers was a reminder of what Michael Jordan and other transcendent stars have proven throughout the decades. Despite the team concept, a lone great player can tilt the balance of power in a playoff series.
James and Wade are on the short list of those who have done it, though not to the same depth as Jordan, of course. When James and Wade were playing on different teams, there was always the reality that they could change a series with one great night. That is still the case today, something even their strongest detractors would admit.
While neither has been able to replicate those signature performances, they have continued to build their case that it can and will happen again.
Last season, Wade was tremendous in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. He averaged 33 points, six rebounds and seven assists while shooting 56 percent against their rugged defense. He carried the Heat to their only win in the series by having one of "those" nights, a 46-point outburst in Game 4.
Two years ago, James had one of the greatest performances from a losing team in a postseason series when he averaged 39 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in six games as the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Orlando Magic in the conference finals. He also made the biggest shot of his career in that series, a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win Game 2, which kept his team in the series -- though the image James is remembered for in that series was not shaking hands after it was over.
With those types of results, it is easy to understand why the thought of uniting James and Wade could create a playoff force for years to come.
Yet fast forward to the present, where pinning the Heat's hopes on this strategy may seem a little bleak as the team recovers from yet another disappointing defeat to a quality opponent.
The loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday night left the Heat with a forgettable 14-15 record against teams with winning records and an ominous 4-9 mark against the other top five teams in the Eastern Conference.
Wade and James are among the league's top five scorers, reclaiming the places they occupied before they teamed up and presenting the façade that they are meshing well together. Their respective scoring averages are less than a point apart, and both are right around 50 percent shooting from the field for the season.
However, they have not been able to quite translate their mutual success to the type of late-game situations in which they excelled in those playoff performances. The Heat are just 5-11 in games decided by five points or fewer, the zone many playoff games find themselves in.
In the team's past three losses -- to Boston, Chicago and New York -- the Heat have not been able to get baskets in the final minutes, even with James and Wade out there together. In the past week, James has attempted and missed shots to tie games in the final seconds without Wade being involved in the play.
There is no doubt this is disappointing and the opposite of what was expected when both joined Chris Bosh, a quality pick-and-roll partner who is talented enough to make the difference in a playoff game as well.
However, it is only the start of March. This is a convenient excuse Heat players and coach Erik Spoelstra have been putting forward for much of the season, that the entire experiment will take time to develop. They are also correct, as both James and Wade have advanced to the Finals when they didn't have the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. James, after two sterling regular seasons with the Cavs, has been knocked out as the No. 1 seed in each of the past two seasons.
Playing well now and winning all the big games would be nice and it would remove some of the pressure to be perfect that the team has endured since July.
There are flaws in the supporting cast, especially without a reliable starting center or point guard, and an inconsistent, aging bench. Yet the Heat continue to believe that Mike Miller, whose season has been marred by injuries, and Udonis Haslem, expected back by the end of the season after getting hurt in November, will end up being ready when the postseason arrives.
Getting upgrades by acquiring veterans bought out of their contracts -- as the Heat seem poised to do with Mike Bibby and perhaps Troy Murphy as well -- may also provide them some depth they badly need.
The other weapon the team points to is the creation of a strong defensive identity, its focus since training camp. Defense is required in the playoffs and trying to form instant bonds at that end of the floor is how the Lakers and the Celtics became championship teams shortly after their radical roster makeovers during the past four seasons.
In this area, the Heat have backed up their talk. They have ranked near the top in the major defensive categories all season, despite the absence of consistent and reliable interior defenders. They have shown the ability to win both high and low scoring games, the type of versatility needed to win four playoff series.
When taking all of that into account, can the Heat legitimately win the championship in June? Based on what we've seen so far, they would be underdogs with the odds increasing significantly from the start of the season.
But they are a strong defensive team with two of the best players on the planet. That formula, regardless of the bumps during the long regular season, has a powerful punch in a short series.
The Heat have the weapons to contend