It may have been the most important game of the year, yet I considered shutting it off.
Miami's Game 5 victory over the Brooklyn Nets - a game that was series-ending, maybe even career-ending - was difficult to watch. With the exception of Dwyane Wade, most of the Heat's roster seemed lost in the first three quarters of play. LeBron James, who had been so precise and overpowering in Game 4, was passive and surprisingly ineffective. The bench, an under-appreciated strength for Miami, was practically nonexistent.
As for the Nets, they seemed virtually unstoppable. Now that the moment is over and the opponent has been beaten, perhaps even into retirement, we can step back and appreciate how good they really were. Paul Pierce, scraggly beard barely clinging to a face that shifts from petulant whining to angry scowl in seconds, was doing what he's done his whole career as a nemesis for Miami and James, in particular. Deron Williams decided to show up (at least early on) and couldn't miss from beyond the arc. Shaun Livingston was supposed to be one of ours, Miami's reclamation project from years ago when a grotesque injury had likely put an end to a once-promising career. Yet here he was giving the Heat's guards fits with his length and regular forays into the paint.
And Joe Johnson. Say what you will about his overblown contract - and much has been said throughout the years - but that guy can play. It's a curse similar to baseball's Alex Rodriguez; contracts so astronomical can never be truly earned, no matter how great you play. But Johnson was Brooklyn's best player all postseason and he seemingly saved his best for last, embarrassing James and everyone else who was supposed to defend him. Even with Miami's miraculous comeback nearly complete, it never felt safe with Johnson on the floor.
So I watched and saw the Heat struggle to contain this tenacious Nets team in the first quarter and thought, Miami will close the gap before the half. When Brooklyn extended their lead as the second quarter came to an end, I convinced myself by saying, The third quarter is where we'll start to pull away.
But the third quarter was even more demoralizing than the previous two, as the Heat did manage to tie Brooklyn before allowing the Nets to build the lead back up to nine as the period came to a close.
Here's where I started to hit the panic button. It's not that Miami couldn't come back, of course. This team has done it all over the last four seasons. They've got the best player on the planet. One of the most cold-blooded shooters of all time. And a man who has expanded his range so completely that his nickname is now "Big Shot Bosh." Hell, last season they were down 27 points before coming back to win the game. The Heat is never really out of a game. But, with Johnson doing what he does and that arrogant swagger from Pierce after he made shot after shot, Miami's chances did not look good. The Heat would toy with me again, cutting the lead to three before the Nets pushed it back up to eight (but it felt like a million).
Like I said, I actually considered shutting the game off. I was nauseous, heart pounding at an unhealthy rate, and I was dangerously close to throwing whatever items were nearby - phone, remote control, the cat - at the TV. But I remembered that 27-point comeback. I remembered Game 6 of last year's Finals.
And I knew I had to keep watching.
Less than 3 minutes left. A LeBron 3-pointer cuts the lead to five. A miss from Pierce. A wonky, off-balance shot from Wade as the offense fell apart cuts the lead to three. Foul by Johnson and James' free-throws cut it to one. Johnson misses (!) and Ray Walter Allen connects on a tip-toe 3-pointer to put Miami up two. His free throws seconds later puts the Heat up four. And then Johnson hits a shot from the corner and the Miami lead is one.
The last few seconds were a blur but I remember James hitting a free throw, blocking a shot, fouling Pierce (but it wasn't called) and then, as the game ended Brooklyn's postseason hopes, jumping on to the scorer's table and letting the home crowd's cheers wash over him after another miraculous, historical comeback.
I've had friends and family ask me why I watch basketball, putting my health - mental and physical - at risk. My simple answer is that it provides the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and I want to be there for the former even if I dread the possibility of the latter. I've considered "quitting" the game, going cold-turkey and hoping there's some of kind patch that Spalding produces to help ease the transition. But the truth is I've been hooked for too long.
I remember Dan Majerle leaping into arms after game-winning shots. Dwyane Wade yelling, "THIS IS MY HOUSE!" Ray Allen getting those yellow ropes out of here. And now, LeBron leaping onto that table, truly Miami's own.
The season isn't over yet and it may just end up with me feeling those lowest of the lows, with thuggish, inconsistent Indiana probably waiting in the next round before facing - let's be honest here - what could likely be a San Antonio Spurs team that has improved and will be seeking revenge.
You never know what can happen during the course of a game, the mystery a big part of the thrill. And, at least for one night, the Heat reminded us that the only way to experience that amazing bliss is to just keep watching.