Although Dwyane Wade would have certainly been thrilled with a cakewalk, he knew the NBA finals would not go any differently than the rest of this season did for the Miami Heat.

A season of grinds is ending, predictably, with another.

"If we came and won in four straight games it would have been like, 'Ummmm, really? All that for that?,'" Wade said Wednesday. "So this is a part of the process. This is what this team is used to. I always look forward to see how we're going to respond."

He'll have his answer soon enough.

Game 5 of the NBA finals in Dallas is Thursday night, the series knotted at two games and remarkably close in no shortage of statistical categories.

For the first time since the 1940s, three straight games of the league's championship series have been decided by three points or fewer, and the oddsmakers apparently expect that trend to continue: The Mavericks were listed as 1.5-point favorites in Game 5 on most Las Vegas boards.

Miami wasted a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2, a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 4, so it stands to reason that the Heat might be preparing for a parade right now instead of a swing game that awaits on Thursday.

Drama has followed Miami all season, and it's not stopping. The Heat were roundly criticized for their success last summer in retaining Wade and landing LeBron James and Chris Bosh, absorbed more shots after getting off to a 9-8 start, weren't popular picks to beat either Boston or Chicago in the Eastern Conference playoffs, been called "Hollywood" by Bulls center Joakim Noah, a regular target for Charles Barkley ... the list of issues is endless.

If anything, all that may have helped for what they're dealing with now. James is coming off an eight-point night in Game 4, his first single-digit scoring effort in 90 career NBA playoff games and the first in his past 434 overall. An ESPN poll before the series suggested 2 out of 3 NBA fans didn't necessarily care if the Mavericks won the title — they just wanted the Heat to lose.

"We didn't expect to sweep," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "We expected it to be a tough battle, expected every game to be a close game and every game has been a close game. Think about it: I think we've won six quarters, they've won six quarters, four quarters have been tied. Everything has pretty much come down to two plays here, two plays there."

There's some irony in that these finals are shaping up as one of the closest in history.

Close games were Miami's biggest thorn this season.

The Heat went 5-14 in games decided by five points or fewer during the regular season, with the NBA's worst shooting percentage in one-possession games with a chance to win or tie at the end.

Still, when the season ends in Miami next week — either Sunday or Tuesday — the Heat will be there, either lamenting a missed title shot or dripping in champagne.

"It's defensive-minded, it's competitive, it's physical. It's like being on the ropes in a heavyweight bout," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's back and forth all the way until the end. And that's the way it should be."

That being said, the Heat say it's time for the breakthrough.

James used exactly that phrase — "It's time," he said Wednesday — when discussing whatever it was that offensively ailed him in Game 4, and how that must change for Game 5.

His confidence, teammates say, remains high. And with that, everybody else in the Heat locker room draws confidence as well, just as they did when things were rough this season at the start, then again when facing a five-game losing streak in March.

Since that slide ended, the Heat have not lost consecutive games. If that trend continues, they'll be champions in a few short days.

"Nobody wants it to go any longer than it has to go," Haslem said. "Everybody understands how things can change so quickly. It's definitely a must-win. I think we play our best in these types of situations with our back against the wall."

Wade said the Heat have learned to appreciate the tension that comes with moments such as this.

"For whatever reason that's what we run on," Wade said. "I think we've understood that from Day One. Our goal was to play this late in the year. So I think we can make it to at least June 14th, right?"


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