IF THERE was a moment when the Miami Heat's playoff trajectory changed, it came on Tuesday, May 9. Not during a game, or a practice, but late at night, on a near-empty court in downtown Miami, on the eve of a series-defining game.
Having lost Game 1 to the New Jersey Nets 100-88 at home, Miami was struggling. The Heat had been severely tested by the Bulls in the first round, and now, against a talented Nets team, Pat Riley's squad had come out flat, shooting 39.1% from the field and an abysmal 18% (4 of 22) on three-pointers. Game 1 was never close. New Jersey jumped to a 17-point lead in the first quarter, scoring 38 points along the way. (Can you imagine a Riley team giving up 38 first-quarter points 10 years ago? Neither could he.) Jason Kidd, New Jersey's hyperactive point guard, nearly posted a triple double, with 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, validating the talk around the league that his time as a preeminent point guard--he did not make the All-Star team--was not yet over. "Every year people want to throw a new name out there like Dwyane Wade or Tony Parker," Richard Jefferson had said a few weeks earlier. "It's ridiculous. Night in and night out, nobody brings it like J-Kidd."
Bullied at home, the Heat spent the off day saying all the right things. "I've been in this situation before," Shaquille O'Neal repeated over and over to reporters. "The key is not to have two games in a row like this." Said Wade, who'd been held to only five points in the second half of Game 1 and scored 25 on 8-of-19 shooting, "I just need to bring more energy, more focus into the next game."
So what did the team's two best players do to remedy the situation? On the night before Game 2 they met at the practice center at AmericanAirlines Arena, two superstar multimillionaires trying to work their way out of a slump. For an hour Wade and O'Neal talked strategy, shot jumpers and plotted. "We talked about how a situation like this happens," O'Neal said the following day. "The definition of home court advantage is you have to win all your games at home. A definition of a championship team is a team that can win any way, anytime."
Whatever happened that night, the change was immediate and obvious. As badly as New Jersey had trounced Miami in the first quarter of Game 1, the Heat returned the favor, racing to a 41-19 lead in Game 2 in front of a roaring full house of white-clad Miami fans. O'Neal and Wade combined to shoot 21 for 36 and score 52 points as Miami demolished the Nets, 111-89. New Jersey's defensive schemes, so effective in Game 1, had done little to slow down Wade, who came out determined. "Dwyane, you could almost sense it this morning that he was in a little bit of a different state," Riley told reporters after the game. "He was very upset after the game the other night, as was everybody. We needed it."
And just like that, it was over. All season the Heat had struggled with chemistry problems--hey, you try integrating Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Gary Payton with two All-Stars. The team would put up a monster performance one night, then lay down the next. But not now. After splitting at home, the Heat went to New Jersey and took two from the Nets with surprising ease.
Throughout the year New Jersey's Vince Carter had been the key to the Nets' attack. After coming to New Jersey in a midseason trade for Alonzo Mourning and others in 2005, the shooting guard had resurrected his career. In '05-06 he averaged 24.2 points per game, 5.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists and returned to the All-Star lineup in February. The Nets fed off his scoring, his back-breaking shots. But as it turned out, Carter was also the team's Achilles' heel. Rely too much on any one player--especially if that player, like Carter, is prone to shooting crazy fadeaway three-pointers--and a team can forget how to play as a team. Carter scored 43 points in Game 3 and 26 in Game 4, but the Nets' offense was out of whack. In Game 3 he hit almost as many field goals (17) as the rest of the Nets combined (20). In Game 4 he took seven three-pointers and missed all of them, proving Kidd prescient when he'd said, the month before, "With Vince you have to accept that sometimes he'll aim at the rim and hit the logo."
Meanwhile, the O'Neal-Wade tandem rolled along. Wade had a near triple double in Game 3, with 30 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists, while O'Neal chipped in with 19 and nine rebounds. In Game 4 the numbers were almost identical: 31, seven and eight for Wade and 16 and eight for Shaq. Udonis Haslem helped with a career game, shooting 8 of 11 from the field, scoring 20 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. Afterward the ever-confident O'Neal told reporters, "I've said it all year. If we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be fine."
Wade's performances had Nets coach Lawrence Frank at a loss. During the regular season the book on Wade was to let him shoot jumpers. But after working with Heat assistant Erik Spoelstra on his balance and form, Wade had gradually turned into a dangerous jump shooter. Never known for his range, Wade had gone 3 for 3 on three-pointers in Game 2 and 2 for 3 in Game 3. This forced New Jersey to play out on him, which left them vulnerable to Wade's drives. And the only way to defend those was to double, and even then Wade could split the trap or find a teammate.
Gilbert Arenas, the Washington guard, had been watching the series after the Wizards were eliminated in Round 1. Asked what could be done to stop Wade once he attacked, Arenas shook his head and said, "Nothing. Because at the end of the day he is just going to keep attacking. Unless you have a long, athletic team, or if you take Shaq off his team and put him on another team, then maybe you have a chance to stop him from finishing." Ex-coach Hubie Brown agreed, pointing to Wade's ability to beat double teams. "He's learning to split the traps," Brown said. "From 10 feet down, out of the lane on the angle, he banks it as well as anyone. He blows through the double team, not slithers like some guys."