Bring in the noise for Heat at home
DAN LE BATARD
The Miami Heat has only one chance now.
Grandmothers. Children. Insurance salesmen. The disabled. Haitians. Hispanics. Librarians. Lesbians. Transplants. Locals. The timid and the loud.
They will all gather tonight around this little underdog team, 20,000-strong, speaking in one language and voice the way South Florida rarely does.
The Heat has spent the past few months lifting South Florida.
Now it is time for South Florida to return the favor.
Miami, season on the edge of extinction, is up against a stronger, bigger and better foe. Miami is weary, tattered, shaken, wounded, dispirited, gasping and down on one knee as Indiana circles like a hungry shark, ahead 2-0 in the NBA's Eastern Conference semifinals. The inspired Heat has revealed heart and resilience and get-back-up all season, even when that is all it had. But now the Heat needs your help in a way it never has.
The Heat is holding out a hand. There will be no getting off the floor without you.
It is odd, how much stronger Miami is when it has all that good noise behind it, when the players can feel like you have their back in a way that is palpable in their play. They are Popeye with spinach, Clark Kent in uniform, stronger in a way that is as cartoonish as it is real. When they are out of gas, this is where they return to get their fuel. No Heat team has relied on the comforts of home the way this one does.
LET'S GO HOME
You should have seen Heat players making the slow, silent walk out of the losing locker room late Saturday, many of them limping, most of them hurting. It has been a long season. They were tired and very eager to get home. They said so. Things are better there. They are more confident there. And confidence can be the largest weapon an athlete has.
Miami is a bad team on the road, a mediocre one in the standings and a giant at home. Indiana legend Reggie Miller has noticed. Watching the Heat-Hornets series that preceded this one, he couldn't believe the difference between Miami at home and on the road.
''Night and day,'' he said.
Miami has won 16 straight games here. Hasn't lost at home in months. Not even the Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant can say that. League Most Valuable Player Kevin Garnett's team can't say it, either.
Miami has won games at home even when you look at the stat sheet afterward and wonder how all those awful numbers ended up adding up to the sparkling one on the right side of the scoreboard. It is something close to magic what has happened to Miami here. How else do you describe a missed free-throw somehow bouncing off Antoine Walker's back so that Rafer Alston would have the flailing chance to beat Dallas on a ridiculous three-pointer while practically falling out of bounds?
But here's the problem: Indiana has a way of making magic disappear. It has the NBA's best record. The Pacers have been as good on the road as Miami has been at home. They do not fear this environment, at all. And, in Miller, they have a player who delights in being hated, and has scrapbooks full of snapshots where he is celebrating at the epicenter of an angry crowd he has just silenced.
Undersized Brian Grant, tired and sore and feeling his age, sounded flummoxed late Saturday while trying to describe what he's up against.
''He's 6-11,'' he began, talking about Pacers MVP candidate Jermaine O'Neal. Grant kept shaking his head. ''Thirty-five-inch vertical leap.'' An exaggerated exhale. ''Highly skilled.'' Grant is overmatched, and he knows it. ''You are going to get in foul trouble.'' There's no way to stop this. All you can hope to do is get in the way a little. ''He's going to get his points.'' Another head shake, then a silence in search of articulation that wasn't coming.
And this is a Heat player who has actually had success in the first two games.
PACERS DON'T RATTLE
But this isn't about the Pacers. A veteran team doesn't rattle in the face of a little noise and some shaking of balloons. You think Miller, one of the most clutch players in history, a man who took on all of New York once and won, is afraid of the sign you are holding up?
It was not the environment that defeated the New Orleans Hornets in the first round. It was the way the five energized Heat players on the court seem to inflate in that environment.
You know how you can fall asleep with the television on sometimes, the noise fading into the background? That's what even the loudest arenas can become to numbed players who have been in this league a long time. They don't hear it anymore, immune, home or away. But Miami's players remain young and innocent and new to the noise, and to winning. It still excites and invigorates them. They haven't had time to get jaded yet.
That's why Dwyane Wade, so very quiet, pumps his fist, bangs on his chest and asks for more noise only when he is at home. The Heat gets its fire from the surrounding warmth.
The Heat did it all alone at the beginning, back when the only believers were in its own locker room. The team got up from 0-7 and 5-15 and 26-37 without much help. But then it started winning, and South Florida started gathering around the way the curious do around a commotion. Pretty soon, they became one, the winning and the noise, rising together.
The Heat tries to climb the most formidable mountain it has seen tonight.
And you know that song they play at Heat games?
When the music and fans rise together in crescendo and the voice asks if you can feel the Heat down in your soul?
That gets reversed tonight.
It isn't about you being able to feel the Heat.
It's about the Heat being able to feel you.