The term "must-win" is rather carelessly thrown about in sports. Following the Heat's Game One loss to the Chicago Bulls in the East Semi-Finals, the term popped up because one could not fathom the Heat going down 0-2 to Chicago, much less losing both home games to start the series. The reality was, by definition, it wasn't a must-win, because the repercussions of a loss in reality would only slightly inconvenience the Heat. In the end, the loss was the Heat's only one of the series, and losing Game Two would in all likelihood have only prolonged the inevitable, the Heat moving on to face Indiana.
Tonight is not one of those careless uses of the term, it is in fact a MUST-WIN. While the 2-3-2 format calls for this situation as the reward for finishing with an NBA-best 66 wins, it feels less like a reward, and more like a punishment. The numbers are against them, as 20 of the last 27 Game Five winners in the current format have gone on to win the championship. The last team to be in this exact situation? The Miami Heat in 2011 when they lost Game Six to the Dallas Mavericks. Since 2002-03 the Spurs are 14-2 when presented with a chance to close out a Playoff series on the road, the best record by far of any team in this situation.
It's truly amazing what is at stake for this Miami Heat franchise over the next 72 hours. By Thursday night, the Miami Heat's Big Three era will be either considered an epic success with unlimited future potential, or an underachieving all-talk, no-walk, runner-up failure. In 72 hours, every late night talk show host will be either booking the Miami Heat stars, or making them the subject of one of their corny monologue jokes. Their truly is no turning back at this point, there is no tomorrow, there is just Tuesday.
Game Five featured the latest chess move in the series, as Popovich started Ginobli in place of Tiago Splitter. It will be interesting to see how Spoelstra counters, if at all. Many anticipate Spoelstra sitting down Mike Miller, who inexplicably has gone scoreless on just two shots since joining the starting lineup in Game Four. Battier is one option, which would reunite the starting unit from last year's championship team, while Ray Allen is a long-shot due to his steady role as the Heat's sixth man. Whatever the move, you can be sure there will be a fast counter by Popovich, who waited all of 40 seconds to bench Splitter in Game Four.
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Let's be honest: tonight is the biggest game in the history of the Miami Heat franchise. Never has more been on the line. Never has one game influenced the future so much. When Wade won with Shaq, you knew Wade had 10 more years worth of cracks at this thing. It got dicey at times last season, but it was pretty unrealistic to think too many wholesale changes would be made regardless of the result. This season's Heat may be the best version you will ever see. Ray Allen can leave if things don't work out. Birdman is a free agent. Mike Miller could be amnestied. Udonis isn't getting any younger, and neither are Dwyane's knees. While I'm no fan of breaking up the Big Three, you just never know what the future holds, so you have to take advantage of what you have in front of you now. Just ask Dan Marino, who never got back to the Super Bowl.
72 hours. Two wins. That's all it takes.