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Burning questions linger

Lackluster play opens old wounds for Heat

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 11, 2011

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MIAMI — It’s fitting that the NBA season, one of the best in recent memory and one that could be the prelude to a long lockout, will end at AmericanAirlines Arena, essentially where the 2010-11 season began last July.

That’s where LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade came together for that lavish introduction, where James promised multiple NBA titles, and Bosh, who had never advanced past the first round of the playoffs in seven years in Toronto, unleashed a bloodcurdling roar to warn foes of their arrival.

After eliminating their first three playoff opponents — including the Celtics — in five games, disposing of the aging Dallas Mavericks was expected to be just as methodical and thorough. But those same late-game collapses that plagued the Heat during the first three-quarters of the regular season, the bizarre performances of James, and the curious coaching decisions of Erik Spoelstra have returned.

During the first three games of the NBA Finals, the Heat appeared considerably better than the Mavericks, who were doing their best just to hang on into the final quarter. But now Dallas has regained its confidence and the Heat must respond with two wins amid the chaos and uncertainty.

The Heat have returned to the lone place where they are showered with sympathy and support. A week in Dallas did nothing but dilute a season’s worth of chemistry between teammates.

The Heat need to reestablish their roles and find themselves beyond the gaudy celebrations and empty promises of better performances. If Miami wants to reach greatness, it has to prove it is functional enough to respond to adversity.

And this is indeed adversity. Miami has trailed in these playoffs just once, after Game 1 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Chicago Bulls. The Heat stormed back for four straight wins. But unlike the 2007-08 Celtics, a team that bought in immediately and was mature and poised enough to realize that titles aren’t won in July, the Heat left Dallas a disheveled mess.

“I think just being comfortable being back at home,’’ Bosh said, following a 112-103 loss in Game 5 Thursday night, about the importance of playing the final two games in Miami. “It’s always good to just get refreshed and, you know, just be somewhere where you’re a little more comfortable. This is uncharted territory for us, but all year has been uncharted ever since we came together. So we’re going to have to use all of those experiences that we’ve went through in this past year collectively to overcome this.’’

Such an elaborate July celebration without having played a game or even practiced together left the Heat open to heavy scrutiny, and James never added an addendum to his promise of eight titles that stated the team would need months to jell. When so much is promised, so much is expected, and James hasn’t delivered.

He was disappointing in Dallas, and now he has two games to revive his reputation and seal his elusive championship. But what will be fascinating to see is how the Heat react on their heels, after they have been popped in the mouth. And the next game, or two, should be humbling for LeBron; no joking, no meaningless long-range shooting games with teammates, and no terse responses to legitimate questions from the media.

The Heat have tried it James’s way for five games and they have lost three of them, so it’s time for Spoelstra to exert his leadership — if he is capable — and approach the rest of the series with a sense of urgency not consistently seen all season.

It’s become apparent that the Heat got away with their superior talent against the 76ers, Celtics, and Bulls, but that hasn’t worked against the Mavericks, who have spent years clashing with the Lakers and Spurs in the West. They haven’t been fazed by the Heat hypnotism. They have matched bravado with bravado and the Heat have wilted.

So Miami’s only solace is coming home. Several players and Spoelstra referred not to playing better or being the more talented team as reasons they can win this series, but returning to where this season started. It seems that such a boastful team is showing signs of insecurity, and that’s a concern. But home can’t be the lone salve for the Heat’s struggles.

They have to change their approach, change their focus, and accept the reality that pure talent and athleticism can fool all the people some of the time, but . . .

“We look at it the other way,’’ Spoelstra said when asked about the prospect of elimination. “We’re going home, and we wouldn’t have it any other way than the hard way. This is an opportunity for us. That’s why you play a seven-game series. You’ve got to play it out. And this is where we feel comfortable.

“By definition, this certainly is a series of mental and physical endurance, and that’s why it’s a seven-game series. We were able to steal one [in Dallas], and they did what they needed to do. They took care of the last two games going down the stretch. So we’re going back to Miami, and we have to do the same thing.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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