Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/25/12
BOSTON There sat the Big Three, together on the bench after having not played as a group since April 15, hobbled and resting and finally approaching the end of an intense season in which the Miami Heat will either crown themselves champions or finish as failures. There is no in between. Not for this team, and not for those three. "It's been a sprint of a season, and the postseason is here," LeBron James said before a watered-down game against the Boston Celtics. "I remember just like yesterday we opened in Dallas. It's been a sprint. Guys have done their best to stay in form both mentally and physically." Perhaps, but the real test of how this story ends for Miami rests exclusively with those three physically, as LeBron said, and mentally. They all sat Tuesday, in the penultimate game of the regular season. Chris Bosh was recovering from a hamstring injury and is expected to return for the playoffs, James is getting a well-deserved rest after perhaps the finest season of his career and Dwyane Wade has his finger in a splint from a dislocation this past week, to say nothing of seeming to have aged before our eyes this season. The fact the Heat lost 78-66 Tuesday to an equally pared-down Boston team Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all sat was mostly beside the point. The Heat are will enter the postseason as the No. 2 seed; Boston is the likely No. 4 seed. "We're excited for the postseason," LeBron said. "We're going to finish these last games out but we're excited like any other team that's punched its ticket for the postseason." It's what the guys who sat on the bench do or do not do come this weekend that will dictate just how far that ticket takes them. Asked about whether there's any chemistry concerns given the fact the Big Three haven't played together to close out the season, LeBron seemed at ease. "I would have (worried) if it was last year, but not now," he said. "I think we've had enough games this year and enough shootarounds that we can go back out there and just have it click right back. Last year we didn't know each other as much so I would have been a little concerned last year if we didn't play together for two or three weeks. Not this year." Wade agreed: "Obviously an ideal situation would be if everybody could play together to the end and everybody would be healthy and we'd go into it at the end playing your best basketball. But for us we know each other, we know our game, and the biggest thing is for us to continue to communicate." LeBron acknowledged he's a bit beat up. Wade did, too. And Bosh is clearly injured. But it's not just health the Heat need to muster a run to a championship. They need each of those guys to answer some lingering questions. For LeBron, it's as simple as this: Can he avoid fulfilling the narrative that he chokes in huge moments by maintaining his MVP excellence in the postseason? His numbers this season are things of basketball beauty. He has averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 0.8 blocks. He has continuously carried his team during Wade's absences. He's hit some huge, clutch shots. He's been a leader on the court and a more likeable, collegial guy off of it. He's set a great tone for himself and his team. He's almost certainly a lock for his third MVP award. "The last few weeks I feel individually I played some of the best basketball I've played as a professional," he said. "And it results in a lot of wins for our team. That means more to me than anything if I can play at a high level and it results in W's for us. I think physically I'm ready for the postseason." No doubt. It's the mental part that's the question mark for his legacy and for this Heat team's chances to win it all. So, to a lesser degree, is Wade's physical readiness. All season he has seemed to age before our eyes. His 22.1 points per game represent his lowest scoring output since his rookie season. Beyond the numbers, in his obviously aching body and even times when he's seemed unable to get the same lift from a body that once seemed agile and ageless, Wade has simply become an old if great player. He was always at times beat up, always a little fragile, always seeming to limp here or get knocked down there. But when he played it was always with a physical rawness, and a power, that has been at times missing this year. The Heat need Wade to reclaim some of that youth and vigor, particularly if LeBron struggles but even if he does not. Wade's play is key in helping clear the hurdles that will stand between Miami and the confetti. "I know my game," Wade said. "I know what this team needs from me, especially come playoff time. As I continue to work to where I need to be hopefully I can provide that." All of Miami hopes he can. And then there's Bosh. Steady, with numbers similar to last season's, he's a guy who puts together some of the quietest good games in the league and who seems less a star than an approximation of one. He was ferocious against the Knicks and Nets in mid-April. He had 22 points and 15 rebounds against New Jersey on April 16, a day after posting 16 points and 14 rebounds vs. New York. But he can also vanish, and he is rarely a force. His excellence and assertiveness or their absence will play big if less-focused-upon roles in however the Heat finish. That's it. LeBron must be mentally strong enough to transfer his spectacular regular-season play into the playoffs. Wade must reach deep down and turn back a clock that seems to have sped up on him. And Bosh needs to be the guy who at times both this and last season earned his place in the Big Three, not the player who at other times earned derision and ridicule for pretending to be. Together, if they do those things, they are good enough to win it all. No doubt. If. The Big Three sat together on the bench Tuesday in Boston and watched the Celtics win in a game with little meaning. But it's when they rise from the bench together and who, exactly, they are when that happens that will decide the ending to one of the biggest questions in sports. Can the Miami Heat finally live up to the hype and win the whole damn thing? You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.
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