LOOK­ING BACK ON 16 YEARS

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Ira Win­der­man

The Mi­ami Heat host the San An­to­nio Spurs in game seven of the NBA Fi­nals at Amer­i­can Air­lines Arena in 2013. Dwyane Wade is be­side him­self as he holds the cham­pi­onship tro­phy for the third time in his ca­reer at Amer­i­can Air­lines Arena. Wade is set to play in his fi­nal reg­u­lar-sea­son home game Tues­day night. Heat beat writer Ira Win­der­man ranks the star guard’s top 10 Mi­ami Heat mo­ments dur­ing his stel­lar 16-year NBA ca­reer.

TORONTO — For those who in­sist the NBA sea­son is too long, the Mi­ami Heat have your an­swer:

A three-game sprint to the fin­ish. The ques­tion now is whether they are too gassed af­ter three con­sec­u­tive losses.

Hardly in this po­si­tion by choice, the Heat ex­ited Fri­day night’s loss to the Min­nesota Tim­ber­wolves at Tar­get Cen­ter aware that if they win their fi­nal three games, there will be play­offs, al­beit with­out a win­ning record.

“You get to this point of the sea­son, it’s un­pre­dictable,” coach Erik Spoel­stra said, as the Heat turned their at­ten­tion to Sun­day’s noon game against the Toronto Rap­tors at Sco­tia­bank Arena. “It’s how you re­spond to it and

that’s all. We just have to stay to­gether and fo­cus on the next game.”

With the East­ern Con­fer­ence prov­ing to be par­tic­u­larly for­giv­ing, a 38-41 record still has the Heat po­si­tioned to play on be­yond Wed­nes­day’s reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against the Brook­lyn Nets at Bar­clay Cen­ter.

“A three-game sea­son,” for­ward James John­son said, “I think that puts things in per­spec­tive. I think it’s a lot eas­ier to bot­tle up three games and to know — empty the tank ev­ery game.”

Or, as for­ward Kelly Olynyk said, no dif­fer­ent than be­ing down

3-1 in a best-of-seven play­off se­ries. “We’ve put some good games to­gether this year,” he said. “We’ve just got to do it three games in a row. That’s the key.”

Ac­tu­ally, such talk is what Spoel­stra is try­ing to guard against. He said the ap­proach has to be three one-game sea­sons, first against the Rap­tors, then Tues­day night against the Philadel­phia

76ers at Amer­i­canAir­lines Arena, and then in Dwyane Wade’s reg­u­lar-sea­son ca­reer fi­nale in Brook­lyn.

“The only thing we can con­trol is the next game, not even the next three,” Spoel­stra cau­tioned. “Let’s just fo­cus on the next one and go from there.”

It is a mes­sage, Wade said, is essen­tial to heed.

“We just got to go out and, as coach says, we’ve got to win the next one, like a play­off men­tal­ity,” he said.

While not specif­i­cally the cir­cum­stance, guard Go­ran Dragic said it ef­fec­tively is now sin­glee­l­im­i­na­tion for the Heat.

“The next game should be played like it’s the only one left, that ap­proach,” he said. “Don’t think about, ‘OK, if you win Toronto, you’re go­ing to be ready for Philly.’ The men­tal­ity is just Toronto right now, no­body else.”

With each of the past three losses com­ing down to the wan­ing sec­onds, in­clud­ing Wade be­ing off with a po­ten­tial win­ning 3-point at­tempt against the Tim­ber­wolves, for­ward Jus­tise Winslow said the Heat are not that far off.

“It’s a lot of fun, man,” he said. “Our backs are against the wall. I’m ex­cited for the chal­lenge. I’m not hold­ing my head down. We still have a pos­si­bil­ity to make the play­offs. So I’m locked in right now. I’m ex­cited.

“This is what you want as a com­peti­tor. It’s put up or shut up. So hope­fully we do the first one. This is when you find out what you’re made of, all the count­less hours you spend in the gym, the film ses­sions, be­ing around the team. This is what it comes down to. We’re go­ing to see what our con­nec­tion, what our heart is about in the next few games.”

While the play­offs don’t start un­til next week, Spoel­stra said they have moved up a week for his team.

“You want to win in the play­offs, you have to learn how to win pres­sure games and games with ex­pec­ta­tion and con­se­quences dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son,” he said. “This can’t feel any more like the play­offs right now. Our backs are fully against the wall.

“I just think this is an awe­some ex­pe­ri­ence for our team. You have to em­brace this and find a way to rise to the chal­lenge.

“Is it play­ing out per­fectly in the way any of us would have wanted? It never does in the play­offs. So you might as well get used to it right now.”

ROBERT DUYOS/SUN SEN­TINEL

ROBERT MAYER/SUN SEN­TINEL

No. 1: Dwyane Wade hangs onto the rim af­ter dunk­ing in the first quar­ter of Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Fi­nals against Dal­las.

MICHAEL LAUGHLIN/SUN SEN­TINEL

Erik Spoel­stra still sees hope for the Heat in a play­off race that has grown ex­po­nen­tially more chal­leng­ing.

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