MIAMI -- When the Miami Heat prepared for their previous game in the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, the possibility of falling into a 2-0 series hole and facing three days of unrelenting scrutiny was enough to instill what Dwyane Wade described as a healthy fear in his team.
Now that the two-time defending champions have tied the series at 1-1 with a chance to take control of the next two games at AmericanAirlines Arena, there’s another motivating factor driving the Heat: closure.
Closing out playoff games was once the Heat’s biggest weakness. Now, it’s become a strength.
“We haven’t played as well as we want to yet," Wade said entering Game 3 on Saturday. "We have other levels we have to reach. We have to get to that level, where we’re playing Miami Heat basketball. You guys know how that looks, when we’re all on one accord playing together. We have a lot more improving to do in this series.”
There remains a healthy concern and respect for the threat posed by the Pacers, who are expected to be at full strength for Game 3 after Paul George was cleared by doctors Thursday to resume basketball activities after he suffered a concussion in Game 2.
George, who was kneed in the head by Wade midway through the fourth quarter with the Pacers ahead by four points, said Indiana would have won the game had he not been limited by the blow that caused his blurred vision down the stretch.
But the Heat’s postseason track record of rising to the challenge at critical stages of the game suggests otherwise. Miami’s players insist they are no longer overwhelmed by a fear of failure in close games.
Indiana is the team standing between the Heat and a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But Miami is still motivated by memories of shortcomings from a 4-2 series loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals.
Growing pains from that series, when the Heat took a 2-1 series lead and then lost three consecutive games to the Mavericks, continue to provide plenty of lessons for Miami three seasons after Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh saw their first campaign together crash and burn at the finish.
A Heat team that once struggled mightily in so-called “clutch” situations late in playoff games has since developed a resolve as strong as any team in postseason history. The Heat hope to build off their latest example, which came at the end of a Game 2 win in Indiana to snatch away home-court advantage.
James and Wade combined to score 22 of the Heat’s 25 points in the fourth quarter, and either scored or assisted on the team’s final 33 points to rally Miami to an 87-83 victory. That performance extended a postseason trend in which the Heat have been remarkable in clutch situations, defined by one metric as the final five minutes of a game when the score is within five points.
The Heat outscored the Pacers 12-0 under those circumstances in Game 2. According to ESPN research, Miami has outscored opponents 41-17 overall and has held teams to just 21 percent shooting from the floor in those situations during this postseason.
The Heat are typically dominant when they get desperate.
“It’s just about rising to the occasion when our backs are against the wall,” James said Friday as he reflected on the finish of Game 2.
“Going down 0-2 was not an option. We came out with that mindset. We can go on with that mindset, and it always doesn’t result in a win. But our mindset going into that game was very aggressive, knowing we had to come out of there with a win.”
That confidence is the byproduct of trial by fire.
After Tuesday’s win in Indiana, Wade sat beside James for their postgame interviews and discussed how much pain and disappointment the Heat carried from the loss to Dallas because of an inability to come up big in the tightest moments of those games. Miami held a lead within the final six minutes during three of its four losses to the Mavs in that series.
Correcting those shortcomings was a priority as Wade and James learned to play better together, and the Heat have been a far different team since then in pressure moments.
“It’s just [a matter of] more time, more games, more film sessions, more experiences, more downfalls and pitfalls,” James said Friday. “The best teacher in life is experience, and we’ve had that. It hurt all of us. We were in a position to do something that we all dreamed of, and it didn’t happen [in 2011].”
There’s a different feeling down the stretch now.
“We feel like we can win,” James continued. “Our defense steps up at an incredible high in those close games. And we feel, offensively, when we get the ball in my hand and D-Wade’s hand, we’ll make plays to help our team succeed.
"We haven’t always won, but feel confident we can.”
Still, that fear of failing is never too far from rearing its head again. But where there was once panic, there is now steeled sense of poise with the Heat.
“You have to panic first -– you have to experience those feelings and not want to feel that anymore,” Bosh said. “And when it gets late, the ultimate challenge and test is to stay poised. That’s what we’ve always done since that Dallas time. We knew that we had to figure some things out. It was a good test for us. It was one of those things that just break you down to build you up. You learn from it.”
And the Heat have applied those lessons against each of the teams remaining in the playoffs.
They’re facing the Pacers for the third time in as many playoff runs, and they’ve won titles in 2012 against the Oklahoma City Thunder and last season against the Spurs.
“The last couple of years, they’ve been here with us,” Wade said. “And we’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of that opportunity. But it could have been either one of us [prevailing].”
Wade was alluding to the ultrathin margins between these teams still playing.
It’s also a mark that has separated Miami from the competition late in games.