There is an engulfing wave of tension that has seeped through South Florida shores and into the city.
Normally laid back Miamians are suddenly sitting upright and moving closer to the edges of their bar stools.
The languid, casual demeanor of Heat fans, so often at the root of outside criticism, became a thing of the past once Dallas took a commanding 3-2 series lead and are now but one step away from delivering the final crushing blow, punctuating in the cruelest fashion the end of what looked like an ideal first season for the Heat.
Still, there are a few who project a borderline irrational confidence going into Sunday’s game six.
“Miami just has to win the next two home games,” they might say.
Or, “The Lakers were in the exact same position last year.”
True as that may be, the reality is the dynamic of this series has fundamentally changed.
Defensively, Miami isn’t playing with the same suffocating defensive energy it exhibited in the first game, the kind of defense that was so stifling it made many in the national media worry that Miami was on its way to another short series.
In Game Five, Dallas unleashed the type of overpowering offensive firepower that not only ended the Lakers season and Phil Jackson’s tenure, but beat the team down to the point that the former two-time champion will be seriously considering monumental roster changes this summer.
For the first time in the series, Dallas unquestionably outplayed Miami.
It was not another case of Miami easing on the gas; the team never had control.
But that’s not the most worrying part.
THE LEBRON CONUNDRUM
LeBron James is.
After yet another subpar performance in Game Five, if you still believe James will suddenly turn back into the player we saw against Boston and Chicago, your belief has to be rooted in optimism instead of anything tangible.
Sure, James finished with a triple double, which looks nice on paper, but it had little bearing on the result.
And while it was certainly a huge improvement on Game Four’s eight point no-show — and really, what wouldn’t have been? — you still walked away feeling as though he could have done more. A lot more.
In some aspects, he showed more aggression, namely with his rebounds.
But offensively, something is clearly awry.
When Dwyane Wade left the game with a hip contusion in the first half, everyone expected James to revert back to his Cleveland days and take an “everyone get the hell out of my way” approach.
That should have been his moment.
Instead, James still couldn’t get it going.
At this point, it’s clear that there’s a significant psychological factor at play here.
You can play amateur psychologist for days and fascinating as it is, you won’t get any closer to finding a plausible explanation.
What makes it such a mind-bender is that all of the possible explanations that could make sense don’t fit the bigger picture.
The scrutiny is finally getting to him?
Please. He’s been on the covers of national magazines since he was 16. The team has experienced a Finals-sized media presence at every practice since October. The media attention is nothing new.
All the minutes are finally catching up to him?
Perhaps. But that doesn’t account for his general passivity in Game Four. You don’t become disengaged because you’re tired.
Is Dallas’ defense just shutting him down?
While the Mavericks’ zone has forced Miami to adjust its approach, the idea that a simple zone could shut James down after playing the best two defenses in the league and seeing just about every type of defense in his eight seasons in the league, just doesn’t make sense.
Is it personal issues?
Of all the possible explanations, the blanket euphemism for any relationship or family issue always seems to gain ground. Stephen A. Smith caused everyone to start speculating wildly after he told ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning that there were personal things going on with him.
And while you no doubt heard certain unflattering rumors, believing any of them blindly is ridiculous.
Plus, the court has always been his sanctuary. He said as much in "More than a Game," the documentary about his quest for a state championship in high school.
Back then, there were other distractions: constantly moving houses, an unpredictable family situation, eligibility questions, the Hummer-- there's always been something going on off the court. James has been able to compartmentalize his life better than just about anyone.
But that’s secondary.
What is clear is James is not enjoying the moment.
He seems out of sorts and instead of thriving on the NBA’s biggest stage, the very reason he joined Wade in the first place and brought upon this unholy you-know-what storm, you get the feeling that he just wants it to be over with.
And that has to be disconcerting if you’re a Heat player.
We kept waiting for James to respond to all the shrinkage criticism and Dallas trash talk with a behemoth 40-point, “how dare you question me?” performance.
Why? Because Jordan would have.
Even Kobe would have. It may have taken him 40 shots to do so, but he would have tried.
So far, nothing has awoken James from his slumber.
Not even Wade’s mid-game intervention.
Why will it a change all of a sudden? Because there’s more pressure? Because it’s an even bigger moment?
It’s hard to make that argument.
MOVING EGGS TO ONE BASKET
What makes the situation far direr is Wade’s nagging injury.
James’ lackadaisical play would be far less of an issue if the Heat knew it had a healthy Wade going into Game Six.
If that were the case, Heat fans could always pin their hopes on Wade taking over the last two games, something he’s done before.
But who knows how effective he will be?
Hip injuries tend to get worse as time passes and muscles and joints tighten up.
For a player whose game is predicated on slippery changes of direction, such an injury could affect his ability to the rim.
At least with Wade though, there is no question in regards of his ability to sense a moment and rise to it.
From a historical standpoint, you have to believe Wade grasps the significance of this series.
Should he be able to overcome the discomfort and put forth two more ’06-worthy games, his iconic status in this city would reach another level.
Dan Marino would be relegated to the passenger seat.
Wade has repeatedly mentioned how he continually feels overlooked by the media when it comes to things like the MVP award or All-NBA teams.
Lead Miami to two more victories and that never happens again.
Even though he will never say it publically, you have to believe that Wade would want nothing more than a second Finals MVP.
Historically, it changes the narrative. To win the award while playing alongside James, who many consider the most talented player in the league the last few years, would instantly propel Wade back to the forefront of any “best player in the league” discussion.
Wade is also aware of the fickle nature of the league. There’s no guarantee he will be in this position again.
Injuries happen, teams fade, others get better overnight, upsets happen—there’s too many variables to just assume Miami will be there next year.
When he won his first Finals MVP at 24, you can bet he would have never imagined that it would take him another six years to just make it out of the first round again.
Golden opportunities such as this can’t be taken for granted.
Maybe James does, but Wade certainly doesn’t.
He’ll be 30 next season. Athletic primes don’t go on forever.
Will such motivation be enough to overcome injury and a stingy Dallas defense that will no doubt key in on Wade if he gets going?
Maybe, maybe not.
Miami will find itself in a familiar place on Sunday, with the hopes of a city pinned on the back of one player.
Two weeks ago, that player was James.
Miami made its big free agent splash last summer to give Wade more help and alleviate his playoff burden.
Funny how things work out.
For two more games, Spoelstra will have to dust off his ’09 and ’10 playoff playbook.
It’s Wade or bust time.