After collapse, Heat must win

Dirk NowitzkiRonald Martinez/Getty Images Sport

After exorcising their old demons during a brilliant postseason, the Heat saw them return in Game 2.

When "The Decision" happened and the Heat had their "welcome party," the stakes for Miami's 2010-11 season were made clear: championship or bust.

Along the way, the Heat's run to a title became about more than just whether they could live up to the hype that was created around them and that they created for themselves.

It became about whether the Heat deserved to be considered an elite team and one of the NBA's true contenders.

Sure, the Heat won a lot of games. And they had one of the best point margins in the league. But something didn't seem quite right. They racked up blowout wins against sub-.500 teams while struggling against the league's best. They looked great for the first 46 minutes of games then couldn't seem to do anything right when it came time to put the game away. They scored the ball, but Wade, James and Bosh never seemed to achieve full synergy, and the role players never seemed to show up.

More than any other team in the league, Miami came into the playoffs playing for respect, to prove that a team built by three superstars signing contracts within a week of each other, one homegrown free agent, one midlevel signing and a bunch of filler could compete with rosters that had been carefully constructed and cultivated for years.

The Heat wanted to demonstrate they could play together on both sides of the ball, push back harder when they were pushed and be at their best when it mattered most.

Over 15 hard-fought games this postseason, the Heat earned that respect.

They beat the Celtics and the Bulls, the teams that were built the "right" way and play with a grit and toughness the Heat were supposed to lack, teams located in cities that live and die with the performances of their favorite teams.

Not only did the Heat beat them, but they beat them with suffocating defense and late-game brilliance in tough, hard-fought games.

Their date in the Finals was with the Dallas Mavericks, whose two best players have never won a ring and whose roster is built around as much mercenary talent as the Heat's is and whose owner, despite his recent radio silence, is not a paragon of old-school values. Even though the Heat hadn't won a championship, it looked as if they'd leave the playoffs with respect, win or lose.

All of that changed in seven minutes.

The Heat, who had played one of their most complete and dominating games of the playoffs through three-and-a-half quarters, let a Finals win slip away, and they did it in the worst way possible. They preened, celebrated prematurely, stopped playing defense with passion, stopped passing the basketball and started trying to rely on hero shots.

They could have had a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, but James, Wade and the rest of the team decided to treat the most important game for the Heat since 2006 and the most important game of James' career as an exhibition, and the Heat had their biggest choke of the season in their biggest game.

With the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls -- the three teams that were supposed to show the Heat were a case of too much hype and too little championship experience -- out of the picture, the Heat-Mavericks series was supposed to be about the basketball. But after the Heat wasted a Finals game by playing like the ultra-talented AAU team their critics said they would be, part of this series has been framed as the Heat against their demons.

There's only one way for the Heat to wash this black mark off of their new-look franchise, and it's the same way the Mavericks washed away their collapse against the Blazers in Round 1 -- win the series.

If the Heat do, the Game 2 disaster will become a footnote in history, the last stumbling block the Heat encountered before getting the first of what could be many rings.

But if they fail to win in Dallas or can't close out the series when it goes back to Miami, the Game 2 collapse and the shortcomings that fueled it will haunt the team and the franchise until it does win its first championship ring of the LeBron era.

And as Dirk Nowitzki can tell you, sometimes a second chance at winning a title you let slip through your fingertips can take longer to come than you might think it would.