Burn the Boats
Revisiting the crazy on the eve of their Game 7 in 2013
Note: This article was first published in the Miami Herald on June 3, 2013 before the Heat's Game 7 matchup with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This Miami Heat team is so great.
So very, very great.
I’m not talking about how the Heat is playing at the moment, which is decidedly less than great.
I’m talking about all the delightful, terrifying crazy they’ve given us for three years now.
Everything somehow keeps escalating, which seems impossible given the dizzying, difficult-to-breathe heights we’ve already experienced. One victory ago, it felt like everything was coming together; one loss later, it feels like everything is falling apart. Perspective? It gets swallowed whole by emotion now, like a T-Rex eating a Teacup Maltese.
Game 7 tonight. Best thing in sports. In a building that will bounce and sway with the odd combination of joy and terror. In the world of fun and games, things don’t get any BIGGER than this.
This feels awful. This feels wonderful. Wonder-awful? Never mind finding this anywhere else in entertainment. There isn’t very much in life that feels quite like this yo-yoing of feelings from day to day, not unless you are in a passionate relationship with a crazy person, and you swing wildly from the fights to the making up. It is hard to live here, in the extremes, for extended periods. It is exhausting, no matter the result you get. You can’t sleep because you are wired from a triumph. You can’t sleep because you toss and turn with haunting after a loss. Your work suffers. You suffer. Isn’t it great?
And the Heat haven’t even trailed in this best-of-seven series; they’ve only been tied or ahead. Up 1-0. Up 2-1. Up 3-2. And yet you still feel terror, right? Imagine if you’d been behind. You’d spend the game penguin-walking to the bathroom to avoid the dirty pants. The first time the Heat will be behind can be at the end of tonight, at which point the season would end with a thudding finality that would send South Florida into depression and allow the rest of Sports America to mock and laugh at us again.
That crown on the head of LeBron James shut everyone up for one full year. But it can be knocked off tonight by 7-2 Roy Hibbert and his army of muscle, and the silence would suddenly be replaced by a laughter that felt like it had been killed in these parts. In other words, the stakes tonight have been ratcheted right back up to that wonder-awful place where South Florida spent the last two seasons. This is only insane. Lose tonight, just one time, and the blueprint goes right from success to disappointment as soon as that clock hits zero.
For three years, we’ve poured emotion and interest and money and time into this relationship with the Miami Heat, and now we’ve followed them right to the edge of a cliff. Look down there. So far to fall from here. So very far. Are you afraid of dying? Or do you feel so much more alive? Champion athletes rise to these moments, play in them, live for them, the challenge heightened for challenge-aholics. Shane Battier talked recently about how you need to be punched in the nose to feel more alive. He said this after Game 2 of this insanity. And he has since been benched.
You need the fear to have the fun, odd as that is to say. And the doubt has to grow before the appreciation can. That four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round didn’t give South Florida much of anything that resembled exhilaration or pain. If the Heat win tonight, you will feel joy and relief, and that feeling will be profound. If they lose, you’ll crawl to work in the morning on your hands and knees, and that feeling will be profound. But you need that nausea in your stomach, like the first time you jump out of a plane, to feel like you’ve done something when you land. There is always more fulfillment when one of the things being conquered is your fear.
This entire season, excellent though it was, didn’t feel anything like the first two of this experiment. Miami winning was a droning excellence, the championship a foregone conclusion, an expectation. There weren’t surprises or confusions or doubts or fears. But tonight we go right back to the us-against-the-world that made the Heat, for the last three years, the most interesting and rallied around team in the history of South Florida sports. The critics, quiet all year, hiding, are perched and ready to pounce, buzzards waiting for someone else to take care of the kill so they can dine. They crowed in Year 1; they fled in Year 2. At about midnight tonight, they will either be spooked by South Florida’s roar, or they will feed with gluttonous delight.
Such a funny thing, expectations. Indiana has already exceeded them. The Pacers season is already a success, no matter what happens from here. They will be saluted for their valiance, for making Miami fight, even if they lose. But the Heat? No. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have never in their professional lives looked so frail. Wade put this entire thing together, and benching him or reducing his minutes doesn’t even seem like a blasphemy. Indiana’s defense is uniquely qualified, with advantages of size and strength, to bother Miami. If we took the uniforms and reputations off these teams, the Pacers are the ones playing the kind of playoff basketball that usually wins — rebounding, defense, and efficient offense near the rim. Miami is playing too far away from the basket, something that must change tonight.
Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra has been talking recently about “burning the boats.” This goes back to a story legend architect Pat Riley told his team once before a game like this. Riley is a basketball lifer. He has seen and felt and fought through nearly half a century of Game 7s. He loves them, win or lose, because he appreciates the heightened state of existence. And Spoelstra has been around the organization long enough to have heard the “burning the boats” story a few times at moments like these.
Seems an army spent years building boats in preparation for a war. Upon arrival on the shores, the general turned around and demanded that his troops burn the boats they’d spent years building.
“But why?” his soldiers asked. “We will have no escape if things get bad.”
“Exactly,” the general replied. “You win or you die.”
The boats are burning behind LeBron James.
He feels the strength of the heat behind him, and he feels the weakened Heat behind him.
My God, this is going to be some kind of fight.