The championship-or-bust season sits on the precipice of disaster now, one loss from a summer of discontent and an avalanche of searing criticism.
Lose Game 6 Thursday in Boston, and Year Two of the Big Three era is done, and this franchise faces every question it wants to avoid: Why were its stars outperformed in the clutch? Should the Big Three be broken up? Should a coaching change be considered?
Win in Boston – where Miami has won just once in eight games the past two seasons, and once in its past 16 overall - and the Heat gets a 48-hour reprieve, until a series-deciding Game 7 on Saturday.
“There’s added pressure, but I think it will be a great thing for us,” Chris Bosh said Wednesday. “You really rise to the occasion when the pressure is there. Hopefully, this will be one of these moments where we look back and say, ‘Remember, we were down 3-2 going into Boston?’
“People on the outside think it’s easy. It’s the most difficult thing you have to do as a professional. We’re finding that out now. We’re going into one of the toughest places in the world.”
Though this Heat group lost its only previous playoff elimination game (against Dallas in the NBA Finals), Dwyane Wade said, “We normally respond really well to desperation. I never thought we would be in this situation. We have to play as close to perfection as possible.”
LeBron James, averaging 31.8 points and 10.0 rebounds in the series, is 2-9 in playoff games in Boston (1-3 as a member of the Heat) since the Celtics put together their Big Three in 2007.
“I know how much pain this team has given me over the years,” James said. “It’s only right we go up there in an elimination game. I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to come through.”
Through five games, the Heat still hasn’t solved vexing problems. Among them:
### The Celtics are disrupting the Heat’s offense by switching defensive schemes. Miami scored 16 points in 13 possessions against the zone Wednesday (a good ratio), but the double teams and the mixing of coverages – combined with errant Heat shooting – have led to several exasperating droughts.
Not only has Miami averaged 90.7 points and shot 43.5 percent in the past three games – compared to 98.5 and 46.9 in the regular season – but of the past 12 quarters, the Heat has scored between 14 and 21 points in eight of them, plus two points in the Game 4 overtime.
“They’re a good defensive team,” Wade said. “We’re not going to say we just missed shots.”
And this should not be understated: During the regular season, the Heat shot 290 more free throws than Boston, with Miami eighth in the league in attempts and Boston 27th. But the Celtics have taken more the past three games (73 to 69). And Miami is shooting 66.9 percent from the foul line, well below its 77.5 season mark.
Also, Miami has been over-reliant on three-pointers, making 18 of 62 the past three games and shooting them at a 29.2 percent clip in the series, down seven points from the regular season.
### Inability to control Rajon Rondo (20.6 points, 11.0 assists in this series) or Kevin Garnett (21.6 points, 10.8 rebounds). Even on a night when Rondo shot 3 for 15, he created havoc with 13 assists, seven of which resulted in dunks or layups.
Since Game 3, the Celtics have carved out passing angles to get Garnett the ball at the rim, often against an undersized defender.
Perhaps 6-11 Bosh, who played 14 minutes in his first game back, can make a difference in Game 6. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Bosh “will be able to handle a bigger load” Thursday but was non-committal about starting him.
### Clutch play. In the final five minutes of the fourth quarter (plus overtime) in games with a margin of five or less, the Celtics are 10 for 21 in the past two games, the Heat 7 of 24.
And over the entire playoffs, the Celtics are shooting 50 percent in that scenario (48 for 96), compared with 36.5 percent for the Heat (23 for 63).
And consider: While Paul Pierce is shooting 63.2 percent (12 for 19) and Rondo 51.6 (16 for 31) in those clutch minutes, James is at 31.6 percent (6 for 19) and Wade 40 percent (8 for 20).
### Wade’s poor first halves, a constant the past four games. Wade scored seven points in the first 4:22 of Game 5 but didn’t score again before halftime, closing the half 3 for 9. During the series, Wade is 11 for 40 in the first half, for 29 points - compared with 81 points after halftime, including 20 in Game 5.
### Inconsistent work from Miami’s role players. Aside from Udonis Haslem (31 rebounds the past two games), the ensemble’s play has been typically erratic.
“At this point, it’s not about schemes [or] play-calling,” Wade said. “It’s about mano-a-mano and see who comes out and wants it the most.”