BRIAN MAHONEY,AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James came to Miami last summer for the chance to be a champion.
He arrived back here Friday just hoping to be a survivor.
The Dallas Mavericks have a 3-2 lead in the NBA finals and can win their first championship Sunday night. Less than a year after the Heat’s free agent victory celebration, the real party might belong to Dirk Nowitzki.
But the Heat, despite consecutive losses that have renewed criticism of their execution and James’ ability in the clutch, insist they can still win the first of multiple titles James boasted of upon his arrival in South Florida.
“I guess they have momentum in the sense they came home and won two games. But each game is its own,” Dwyane Wade said Thursday night. “We’re going to come out — every game has been pretty much a possession here, a possession there. Either team can come in and say they can be up different than what they are. We’ll be coming to the game understanding it’s a possession game in Game 6, doing whatever it takes to win the ballgame. So we’re confident.”
So are the Mavericks, who hung in for four games until their offense finally started clicking the way they believed it would. They get two chances to close out the Heat, but stress the importance of doing it on the first try.
“Game 6 is Game 7 for us,” guard Jason Terry said. “We want to play like there’s no tomorrow. If we do that, I have no doubt in my mind we can be successful. We must come out aggressively.”
Wrapping it up on Miami’s floor would be the sweetest revenge for Nowitzki and Terry, who launched the Mavs’ final shot that Wade rebounded and fired in the air as the clock expired on Miami’s Game 6 victory in Dallas in the 2006 finals.
That remained the Heat’s biggest moment until last July, when James and Chris Bosh agreed to join Wade in Miami. The Heat threw a victory bash, with their three superstars posing and dancing on stage while drawing some ridicule around the league.
There’s no dancing now, especially not with Wade’s sore left hip.
He said he’ll be fine in time for Sunday, and the Heat get a break with the extra day between Games 5 and 6 after the finals started earlier than normal following two short conference finals. Under the usual format, there is only one day off when the finals switch cities.
James’ reputation has absorbed its own wound. He rebounded from his eight-point Game 4 flop by delivering a triple-double in Game 5. But it came with only two points in the fourth quarter. He has totaled just 11 points in that period, a major reason the Mavericks have pulled out three games in one of the tightest finals ever.
“We’ve just got to push through it. At this point we have no choice, honestly,” James said. “We’ve got two games left, and we worked hard all year to get home-court advantage. So we have to take advantage of it.”
The winner of Game 5 has gone on to win the title 19 of the previous 26 times the finals were tied 2-2, but the Heat will try to become the second consecutive team to overcome those odds. The Lakers returned to Los Angeles down 3-2 last year and took the last two from the Boston Celtics.
The Heat’s chances depend on being able to regain control of a Dallas offense that was at its frightening best in Game 5. After averaging just 87.8 points through four games, the Mavericks shot 56.5 percent from the field and hit 13 of 19 3-pointers (68 percent) in their 112-103 victory.
Another performance like that and veterans that fill up their roster could finally become champions.
“Look, we’re trying to execute our game plan and see if we have the most points come Sunday,” 38-year-old point guard Jason Kidd said. “We’re not looking to knock no one out. We’re here to play team basketball and continue to do what we’ve been doing the last two games.”
Still, these finals are turning into what James isn’t doing, much more than what the Mavs are doing. Even the two-time MVP’s triple-double felt hollow, because it was accompanied by two missed shots and a turnover on an offensive foul after the Mavs tied it at 100 with 3:23 remaining.
And the Heat can’t even count on his defense against Terry anymore. He shut out the Mavs’ spark plug off the bench in the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 3. But the Mavs have done a better job of freeing their sixth man, who has helped himself by putting the ball on the floor and attacking more.
“That’s the ‘Jet’ we need,” Nowitzki said. “We need him to attack and get in the lane. It opens up a lot of stuff for everybody else out there.”
The Heat overwhelmed top-seeded Chicago in the last round by dominating the fourth quarters, with James containing league MVP Derrick Rose. But the Bulls — and most other teams — lacked the shooting touch of these Mavericks, who can spread the floor and get the Heat’s defenders out of position. And after struggling through most of the first four games, J.J. Barea began hurting the Heat with his penetration in Game 5.
“They stretch the floor at the majority of the positions, and Nowitzki requires at least attention of one-and-a-half and oftentimes two guys and create some kind of trigger,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Barea was able to get in the paint, make some plays, break us down, and Terry was able to do that as well.
“Our defense has been proven. Our defense has been successful against all kinds of different offenses. It is not easy against this team, but we are capable, very capable when we’re on top of it.”
A Heat victory Sunday would set up a Game 7 on Tuesday night. Miami hasn’t lost three consecutive games since a five-game skid in late February and early March.
The Heat proudly point to the struggles they’ve overcome this season: their rocky early start; long injury absences for key players Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem; and all the scrutiny they faced along the way.
But getting out of the situation they are in now would easily top that list.
“This is an opportunity for us,” Spoelstra said. “That’s why you play a seven-game series. You’ve got to play it out. And this is where we feel comfortable.”
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