MIAMI -- Over the past four seasons the Miami Heat have endured a lifetime of playoff experiences. Nearly every situation they encounter offers a frame of reference -- a moment when they held similar feelings, or faced the same challenges.
In a morbid case in point, Norris Cole was stunned earlier this week when a personal employee died unexpectedly in a shooting. It was tragic, yet even that stunning incident was something the Heat had coped with in the past. Two years ago this week, one of Chris Bosh's employees passed away suddenly at his home.
The Heat had suffered serious mid-series injuries, faced elimination games on the road, navigated dangerous squabbles between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and overcome home-court disadvantage. Last season they trailed three different times during the NBA Finals and still won. They have done it all under a level of scrutiny that no modern sports team has ever sustained. Through it all, they have created an exoskeleton that can withstand any scenario with a "-gate" suffix.
So here the Heat were in the midst of getting run off their court for a second time in three nights Thursday, losing Game 4 of the Finals 107-86 to the San Antonio Spurs. Pushed to the brink of elimination, something unprecedented and profound surfaced for the Heat.
It wasn't just that they'd lost back-to-back games for the first time in the past eight playoff series. Or that they'd fallen behind two games or lost two consecutive home playoff games.These were just factoids.
As the Spurs whipped the ball through Miami's defense and executed a beautiful strategy with a mix of expertise and grace, the Heat seemed to have a collective and halting revelation: They were playing a better team.
"We've seen our fair share of adversity. This is adversity in all caps," Bosh said. "Being in this hole is different for us, it's different. It's a hard pill to swallow."
No matter what has happened over the past four years, the Heat always, always, always believed they had the better team. They believed it when they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals in 2011. They believed it when they trailed the Boston Celtics 3-2 in 2012. They believed it when they were down 3-2 to the Spurs and behind five points with less than 30 seconds left in Game 6 last year.
The Heat famously lull their opposition into false security only to shrug it off, throw back their shoulders, summon up the energy and administer a whipping. Losing Game 1 of a series is merely an invitation to win the next four. A home loss can be made up on the road. A lousy first quarter can be compensated in the fourth. This has happened so many times that it's just expected.
After a blowout loss in Game 3, it was widely assumed the Heat would bounce right back in Game 4, James would put up something like 28 points, eight rebounds and shoot 60 percent. In the process, the Heat would hit some 3-pointers, score 20 or so points off turnovers and they'd send this puppy back to San Antonio at 2-2.
Not now, not against perhaps the best Spurs team in history. And no, that is not a throwaway sentence. In case you had forgotten, the Spurs had the best record in the most competitive Western Conference race in memory and they survived that bracket looking better each round.