At last, Heat figuring out how to win close ones
MIAMI — The distance between the November version of this Miami Heat team and the version that beat a tenacious and streaking Pacers team Tuesday night can be measured in 13 games.
And it can be best explained in one gaping difference: The Heat are now clutch.
Quite suddenly, the Miami Heat team that in November couldn't handle the weight of what it created with its Big Three and fawning fanfare has become the Miami Heat team able to bear that weight at its heaviest — when the game is tight and the clock is ticking toward zero.
"I thought everybody said we couldn't win close games," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
They did they say that. Because it was true.
Before this seven-game winning streak, the Heat were 1-8 in games decided by five or less. That's the mark of a team that simply can't handle the pressure.
But their 117-112 win Tuesday night — a grinding comeback after giving up 97 points in the first three quarters — marked the fourth time during this win streak they've won by five or less.
The best team in the league that couldn't win close games suddenly can.
This is more telling than LeBron James' huge night Tuesday, more important than his 41 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
It's more relevant than the fact LeBron could win his third MVP award. More important than Mario Chalmers putting in a solid game that included 16 points and zero turnovers. More noteworthy than LeBron and Wade putting out stat lines that show each can step away from the spotlight when winning requires it.
Awards are fine. Stats are cool. Humility is easy to celebrate. But only finding a killer instinct in the clutch leads to the kind of greatness these guys covet.
What was a nagging Achilles' heel well past November has become the most important marker yet of this team's progress toward becoming extraordinarily formidable in April.
Week after week, stretching all the way back to those November doldrums, a new strength or component has been added to the mix to make this possible.
Bosh learning to fit in.
The Heat finding some toughness.
The team bonding as a group.
Dwyane Wade growing comfortable sharing the spotlight.
Four mediocre centers combining to fill what had been a gaping hole.
LeBron embracing his villainy.
Mike Miller returning from injury and then — after a month — shining.
Eddie House contributing after a month's banishment on the bench.
And now a combination of all these factors, a melding that in the past 10 days has manifested itself in the way of true winners: Miami having learned how to get it done when the stress sets in and the clock becomes an adversary.
"That's really the fabric of this team," Spoelstra said. "When we find something that we're not doing well enough, we've proven so far this season that we've been able to figure it out, be objective about it and work together to fix it.
"And something we really needed to work on was our execution and discipline going down the stretch of close games. And you can see it. The trust level is there, everybody's touching the ball at the end, a lot of triggers, a lot of second and third options, and a lot of poise going down the stretch. That's helped."
More than helped, it's transformed them. They have moved, as Spoelstra likes to say, to another level — a level past simply being an excellent team that blew out many opponents but wilted in close games.
"We're just more comfortable with each other, more confident in our late-game sets," said Wade, who added 17 points. "We've always been confident in our late-game defense, but offensively we're just executing more down the stretch. We're getting better looks and a lot better opportunities."
It's an important shift.
To date, the teams most likely to hoist the trophy this year have been fantastic when games come down to the wire. The San Antonio Spurs are 9-2 in games decided by five or less. The Boston Celtics are 14-7.
The Lakers are 8-6.
To beat competition of that caliber, the Heat will need to continue to elevate their play in the face of real adversity.
"Now we're very comfortable in late games, and we feel we should win if the game is close," Wade said. "It's not always going to go that way, but we have that mentality."
It's an important belief.
Even more important is making good on it in games against teams like Boston and Chicago.
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