Miami Heat say hello to third consecutive NBA Finals

Heat advance to third consecutive NBA Finals.

MIAMI —

It was the final minutes of the final game and, as the crowd stood, as the applause rained, here came one final surprise of the Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron James was headed to the bench. He wasn't needed anymore.

This long, difficult step became that unexpectedly easy by the end. James kissed his fingers and raised a fist to the crowd as the Heat rolled to a 99-76 win in Monday's Game 7 at AmericanAirlines Arena.

LeBron Voyage, Indiana.

Hello, NBA Finals.

And so it goes on. The quest. The Heat spring. All the intoxicating drama. It's Miami against San Antonio in the NBA Finals starting Thursday on this same home court.

If a couple of days aren't much time to prepare, the news is the Heat survived to prepare. The Heat took some big punches from Indiana. They were knocked down a few times, with all the crisis questions of players' immediate futures and team legacy swirling in the Game 7 air.

But they stand this morning with the crown still on their head, the words "defending champion" before their name, because when it mattered most they remembered who they are and how they got to this point.

The Heat's Big Three did it right from tip-off, too, in a manner they hadn't all series. It was the Big One for so much of the time against Indiana with LeBron carrying them. But in Game 7? Never a doubt for the Big Three, right?

Chris Bosh had more rebounds by halftime (seven) than he had in any game this series. Dwyane Wade looked like Dwyane Wade again, zig-zagging to the basket, scoring as many points by halftime (10) than he had the previous two games. By night's end, he tied his playoff high this spring with 21 points.

"He's 6-3, 6-4, but he has a way in big games of getting bigger,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It seemed like he was 6-10 out there."

And LeBron? He was still LeBron, still the game's leading scorer with 32 points, still the motor that made everything run. He drove inside. He scored outside. He caught an alley-oop pass from Mario Chalmers for a dunk.

There was this, too: Fourteen shots were taken by teammates at the start before LeBron took his first one. He made sure everyone was involved as they had been all year until this series.

"They've been through it before,'' Indiana center Roy Hibbert said. "They knew what to do."

Besides the Big Three, that meant in-your-kidney defense. That always was a staple of the Heat, and it was missing for long stretches this series. But the defense, coupled with Indiana's Game 7 nerves, led to the Pacers having more turnovers in the first half (15) than they had averaged this series (13.6).

And rebounding against bigger, stronger Indiana? That had been a problem area for the Heat this series. But when the season was on the line, the Heat didn't just out-rebound Indiana by seven but had 15 offensive rebounds to Indiana's eight.

"This whole game was crunch time for them,'' Indiana coach Frank Vogel said.

The simple truth in sports is that playoffs define teams. For loud, long, alternating moments this series, the Heat were like the first two tattoos Chris "Birdman" Andersen got on opposite forearms: Good and bad.

The good finally chased away the bad Monday night. And when team owner Micky Arison was handed the Eastern Conference trophy, he turned around and handed it to ... Birdman.

He was the only player there. No doubt the Big Three only want to hold the next trophy aloft, the championship trophy. Birdman put it above his head for the crowd to see.

"We needed our best game,'' Spoelstra said.

The Heat became the only South Florida team to reach three consecutive championship series/games since the dynastic Dolphins reached the Super Bowl in the 1971, 1972 and 1973 seasons.

Those Dolphins were the last local team to win consecutive titles with those last two Super Bowls. Now the Heat go for consecutive titles.

Before Monday's game, LeBron had talked to his teammates after a brief morning practice. His supporting cast was a concern all series, after all.

"They'll be ready,'' he said.

They were ready. All of them. And by game's end, LeBron sat on the bench next to Wade next to Bosh. The Big Three were back in form when the season needed it most.

And so, just like that, a crisis passed, a moment was made, a Game 7 won and the season moves on. San Antonio, rested and ready, awaits.

Finally, it's the Finals.

dhyde@tribune.com

 

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