MIAMI — When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to play together in 2010, this is what it was all about. The Miami Heat are making their fourth straight trip to The Finals and are the first team to do so in the last 29 years.
The Heat’s domination of the Eastern Conference since James arrived was epitomized by their 117-92 demolition of the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. Their best game of the series came at the right time and made it clear how much distance there was between these two teams. At one point in the third quarter, the Heat led by 37.
“It’s what we wanted to do,” Bosh said afterward. “We wanted to play a very good game, and we didn’t want to really let our foot off the gas in any type of capacity.”
Though they had their ups and downs (like no other team in recent memory), the Pacers were the best team in the conference in the regular season. But no East team came close to knocking off the Heat in the playoffs. They will arrive at The Finals having played at least three (and as many as five) fewer playoff games than their opponent.
The question is how much they’ve been tested, specifically on defense. As good as the Pacers were at times this season, they were never a very good offensive team. At times in this series, they were a complete mess on that end of the floor.
The Heat brought more defensive focus as the playoffs went on, but defending the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder is a lot different than defending Charlotte, Brooklyn or Indiana. Starting with Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday, we’re going to see how far they’ve come on defense over the last six weeks.
The Heat’s offense? Well, it’s a machine right now. After struggling through the first 4½ minutes of Game 6, the champs went on a ridiculous run, scoring 58 points on their last 33 possessions of the first half, turning an early seven-point deficit into a 26-point halftime lead.
Only two of those 58 points came on a fast break. The Pacers took care of the ball and had a decent offensive second quarter (21 points on just 19 possessions), but couldn’t get stops, even when their defense was set.
“In our offense,” Ray Allen said, “we got everything we wanted.”
That was the story of this series. For six games, the Heat sliced up the No. 1 defense in the league. Talk all you want about Indiana’s need for more shooting and playmaking, but the Pacers got destroyed on the end of the floor that they take the most pride in, unable to match up with the Heat’s shooting and playmaking.
Miami neutralized Roy Hibbert‘s rim protection on the perimeter, hitting 10.4 3-pointers per game at a 44 percent clip over the last five games of the series. James, meanwhile, did what he does, shooting 31-for-38 (82 percent) in the restricted area in the conference finals, with more than twice as many buckets in the paint (36) as he had outside it (16).
As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said often over the last two weeks, this was a contrast of styles and the winner would be the team that could “impose its identity” on the other. Ultimately, the Heat imposed their identity — and their personnel — on the Pacers.
These last four years have been about three of the best players in the league coming together to win multiple championships. And no team in the league can match up with James, Wade and Bosh. But this isn’t 3-on-3, and very year, the Heat have had role players to fill in the gaps.
In this series, when another piece to the puzzle was needed, it was Rashard Lewis, who started the last three games and was a series-high plus-58 in 100 minutes (plus-28 per 48 minutes). As a fifth shooter on the floor, he made the Heat impossible to guard, and he held his own defensively against David West.
“We talk about it all the time with our team,” Spoelstra said, referencing Lewis’ sudden emergence as a major factor. “It’s about moments. It’s not necessarily about every single game or minute during January and February. It’s about the big moments, keeping yourself ready and having an opportunity to make an impact at some point during the postseason.”
“Rashard,” James added, “was obviously the key to everything.”
This year’s Heat haven’t been the best Heat we’ve seen. But things are falling into place at the right time. While we may question their ability to play great defense on a nightly basis, we have no doubt that they know how to bring their best when it’s needed.
“They play at a championship level,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They have a way to raise it to the point that it’s too much to overcome.”
It’s been three years since the Heat first got to this point and stumbled in the 2011 Finals. They were just six seconds from falling short a year ago. And with many roster questions to face this summer, we don’t know what the future holds.
But right now, the Heat are still fulfilling the expectations that we had for them and that they had for themselves when they got together in July of 2010.
“We’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in,” Wade said, “because it’s an amazing moment. It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes. Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this. So we just want to add to what we’re accomplishing.”
“We know we still have work to do,” James told ESPN’s Doris Burke, “but we won’t take this for granted. We’re going to four straight Finals.”