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Heat Overcome Turbulent Season to Compete in NBA Finals

Posted on June 01, 2011 by Chris Kent

For all their struggles in meeting the national hype this season, the Miami Heat are right where they were expected to be. Playing in the NBA Finals as the Eastern Conference Champions. The Heat are gunning for their second championship in six seasons as they take to the court against the Western Conference Champion Dallas Mavericks as the finals open this week.

Yet it has been anything but easy for Miami in getting to the finals. While the story of last summer, “The Decision”, brought superstar LeBron James to the Heat to join forces with Dwyane Wade, that hasn’t resulted in an easy path to the top. Former Toronto Raptor star Chris Bosh, a talented 6-11 power forward, also joined Miami this year. James, Wade, and Bosh were looked upon as basketball’s version of the triplets, what Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith were to the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990’s in the National Football League. Yet, at times, the Heat’s triplets were mere mortals.

Miami's LeBron James elevates for a jump shot over Corey Brewer of the Bulls during the Heat's game five win in Chicago on May 26 (Nathaniel S. Butler)

Despite being touted as the dominant favorite to make the NBA Finals and even win it, that threesome and Miami had more than one challenge, obstacle, and drought this season. After signing James and Bosh, the Heat’s season opened with huge expectations. However a season-opening 88-80 loss at Boston raised some questions. The Celtics were the defending conference champions and had won the 2008 NBA title. Many predicted that it would come down to Boston and Miami for the title in the east. With that on the minds of the players, fans, coaches, and media, the Heat were facing national scrutiny right from the very start of the season.

James led Miami with 31 points in the opening loss while Wade scored 13 with Bosh adding just eight points. The Heat never lead in the game and Boston showed why the experience of their key trio – Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett – made a difference.

The aftermath of that opening loss had the talking heads raising questions. Could Wade, James, and Bosh exist together and function? Was there enough points and plays to go around the three of them? What about the rest of the team? Every team, no matter how talented their top players are, needs supporting players to provide a cohesive nucleus. Forward Joel Anthony and guard Mike Bibby, the team’s other two starters in the opener against Boston, needed to mesh well with the trio. These were only some of the questions.

Additionally, there was the all-important issue of how the reserves would fit around Wade, James, and Bosh. Veteran centers Udonis Haslem and Zydrunas Ilgauskas each provided quality experience in the pivot. How would they adjust to the trio? Youngsters like Mario Chalmers and James Jones would have to find their niche as well.

Miami bounced back in their second game of the season with a 97-87 win at

Dwyane Wade shoots over Elton Brand during the Heat's first round playoff series against Philadelphia (Jesse D. Garrabrant).

Philadelphia. Three consecutive wins followed as the Heat pushed their record to 4-1 after five games. However, Miami would continue to have an up-and-down start to its’ season over the next several weeks.

The Heat’s 4-1 start was followed by a 1-3 stretch, their only win coming at home against non-playoff qualifier New Jersey, 101-89. The three losses came at New Orleans (96-93), home to Utah (116-114, OT), and home to Boston (112-107), teams who would all reach the playoffs. With everything is more significant in a city like Miami, the biggest problem for the Heat was mediocrity for a team of stars. Miami was just 5-4 through nine games and disgruntlement was heard all over. Players began pointing fingers at each other.

It was not the time for that as the struggles continued. The Heat went 4-4 over their next eight games. The four wins came over Toronto (109-100), Phoenix (123-96), Charlotte (95-87), and Philadelphia (99-90). However the four losses came on the road to Memphis (97-95), Orlando (104-95), Dallas (106-95), and home to Indiana (93-77). Each of those teams would make the playoffs.

Miami was struggling against the better teams in the east and around the league. Again, they were just one game above .500 at 9-8 through 17 games after this eight-game stretch. That was good enough for just sixth place in the conference at the time.

Questions about cohesiveness were surfacing. Could Wade, James, and Bosh develop the chemistry among themselves to be able to lead each other as well as the team? Could this team really function and play together efficiently? There was much still to be determined.

Even the smallest of incidents, some believed to be unintentional, were magnified beyond reasonable limits. During a timeout in a 106-95 loss at Dallas on Nov. 27 to close out the 4-4 stretch, James and Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra bumped shoulders. Media members right and left speculated whether it was out of frustration, done intentionally, unintentionally, or was meant to send a message one way or the other. Before long, this incident was publicized on YouTube and Twitter for all of the universe to see and cast their own opinion about. It was developments like this that plagued Miami during much of the early season and cast a seed of doubt in the minds of themselves and many outsiders.

Chris Bosh takes a fadeaway jumper over Kevin Garnett during Miami's series-clinching win over Boston in game five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (Victor Baldizon).

What the Heat needed at this point was a chance to recollect themselves and figure out where they were a little less than a quarter of the way through the season. A period to refocus was needed to assess themselves and what they had to do to get to where they wanted to be.

Goal-setting, if not already on the table, was called for. Believing that the team needed to get more on the same page, Wade stated that they needed more time to know each other better and also recognize each others’ tendencies on the court. This in turn would help develop vital timing that all championship teams need. That was right around the corner.

Miami closed out November with a 105-94 home win over Washington on Nov. 29. The victory started a season-high 12-game winning streak that was part of a 21-1 record over the Heat’s next 22 games. During this stretch, Miami started to show sustained success and that they could beat the other top teams in the league, be dominant, and contend for the NBA title.

During this 21-1 stretch, the Heat beat six different teams that went onto the playoffs. Included were a pair of victories over the New York Knicks and one win each against Atlanta, Utah, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland. Five of these wins were by double figures including a 16-point win (96-80) over the back-to-back NBA Champion Lakers at the Staples Center on Christmas Day. Miami also showed that it could win more closely contested games with an eight-point win over New York and a seven-point overtime win at Portland.

The Heat now seemed to be rolling at 30-9. This was the team that Miami fans and the basketball world envisioned back in training camp. James’ triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists led the Heat to the Christmas-Day win over the Lakers. Bosh added 24 points and 13 rebounds while Wade scored 18 points and dished out six assists. This was a statement victory as it was a game every basketball fan had marked on their calendar from the day the NBA schedule came out.

Having rectified their performance over a long stretch, the challenge was to now sustain it over the long season. That is always easier said than done and that theory revealed itself as Miami lost its’ next four games, its’ second longest losing streak of the season. Three of the losses came to Denver, Chicago, and Atlanta who each made the playoffs.

By now, the Heat had formed their identity and knew each other much better

Reserve guard Mario Chalmers drives to the basket for Miami (Victor Baldizon)

and how they all responded to adversity. Overcoming their early season struggles and negative headlines in the press had made them tougher. They would need it as another rough road was on the horizon.

An eight-game winning streak that started in late January was part of a 12-2 mark over a 14-game stretch that went into late February. While the two losses were on the road against east contenders Boston (85-82) and Chicago (93-89), Miami was in each game right to the end.

However, things would get tougher after those close losses. Heading into perhaps their toughest stretch of the season in early March, the Heat lost a season-high five straight games which was part of a 3-6 stretch. It didn’t help that the drought included home defeats to New York, Orlando, Chicago, and Portland, all who would reach the playoffs. There was also a 125-95 shellacking at San Antonio which sported the best record in the league for much of the season.

Returning home for a four-game home stand against some of the best teams in the league, Miami responded with a 3-1 showing. Included were wins over the Lakers (94-88), Memphis (118-85), and San Antonio (110-80). The Heat had experienced some of the worst of times followed by some of the best of times of the season in a span of about 18 days.

Miami would close the season 7-1 with one of the victories being a 100-77 home win over the Celtics on April 10, their first win over Boston on the season. The Celtics won the regular season series with the Heat, 3-1.

It was onto the playoffs where Miami, seeded second in the east, beat Philadelphia 4-1 in the first round. Facing the Celtics in the conference semifinals in the postseason matchup everyone wanted to see, the Heat eliminated Boston 4-1 with a 97-87 win in game five. Wade scored 34 points while James added 33 to lead Miami. The Heat trailed 87-81 with 4:29 left to play and ended the game on a 16-0 run to win the game and clinch the series. James scored Miami’s last 10 points, six coming on a pair of 3-pointers.

Chris Bosh dunks against the Bulls during the Eastern Conference Finals (Jonathan Daniel).

Next up was the Chicago Bulls, the top seed in the east, in the conference finals. Again it was a five game series as the Heat won 4-1. The Bulls took game one at home, 103-82, before Miami won four straight. The Bulls led 77-65 at home in game five with 3:14 left to play before the Heat closed the game with an 18-3 run to complete an improbable comeback en-route to the series-clinching win. Wade and James each scored eight points in the game-ending surge with James hitting a pair of 3-pointers. A 3-point shot by Chicago’s Derek Rose with 0.7 seconds left was blocked by James and Miami was on its’ way to the NBA Finals.

With all they have gone through this season and dating back to “The Decision” from James last July, it seems that the Heat have come full circle. Almost. Four more wins will signify that and provide Miami with a major achievement. In the process, the Heat will eliminate any questions about how good they are. Except one. Is there a dynasty in the making in Miami?

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