MIAMI — Dwyane Wade and LeBron James sat side-by-side behind microphones early Sunday morning, peering out at reporters through matching black-rimmed nerd fashion glasses. About 90 minutes before, the Miami Heat had defeated the Boston Celtics, 101-88, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, kicking off a short, understated celebration at center court.
As Wade and James fielded questions before heading out of American Airlines Arena, one reporter wanted to know what each had to say to the critics who had “dug a grave” for the Heat players after they fell behind in the series, 3-2, with a loss on their home court in Game 5. The reporter emphasized that he wanted answers “from both of you.”
James chuckled. He began tapping his folded hands with his thumb.
“Thank you,” Wade said.
The reporter waited for further comment. James kept tapping his thumb, his eyes darting behind his glasses.
“Thank you,” Wade repeated, grinning. “Appreciate it.”
James left the question alone. After earning a date with the Thunder in the NBA Finals, which begin Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, Miami’s biggest stars seemed determined to turn to the next order of business, rather than spar. They resisted the temptation to fire back at the grave diggers who suggested that they couldn’t compete with balanced, team-oriented squads, didn’t have the heart to advance to a second straight NBA Finals and couldn’t win close games.
“That’s somebody else’s truth,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We have a very confident group. . . . And that’s why we didn’t panic in either one of these last two series when we got behind. . . . Coming down in the stretch of fourth quarters, you could possibly have said that about our basketball team last year. Not this year.”
Miami gets another chance to silence its critics — or inflame them — against a team that will bring a vastly different style from the experienced, defensive-oriented, balanced Celtics. The easy-to-love Thunder is defined by energetic youth, potent scoring and star power to rival Miami’s.
James, the league’s Most Valuable Player, will get to showcase his skills against Kevin Durant, the runner-up for the honor and the NBA scoring champion — and a guy James trained with in his home town of Akron, Ohio, during last summer’s lockout.
James has averaged 30.8 points and 9.6 rebounds during the playoffs; Durant, 27.8 and 7.9.
It’s the very matchup, James said, he dreamed about when he and Durant endured the grueling training camp of sorts that they dubbed “Hell Week.” The pair got so tight they even led opposing teams in a televised game of flag football at the University of Akron in late November.
“I envisioned it every day we worked out,” James said. “I understood what his passion was. I understood what his drive was. We pushed each other every single day. . . . He was a little upset about the series in Dallas, where they got eliminated by Dallas, and I was, as well. So we pushed each other each and every day. . . . I was happy for him that he’s able to get to the Finals. I’m looking forward to going against him.”
Now that Miami made it, the scrutiny will begin anew. Losing to Boston would have made the season an abject failure. Falling to the Thunder after having lost in the Finals in six games to the Dallas Mavericks last year would still be considered a massive disappointment and cause, possibly, for heads to roll.
Last year’s postseason loss to the Mavericks has motivated the Heat’s big three — Wade, James and Chris Bosh — since the day that series ended, Wade said.
“It’s been a long 12 months,” Wade said. “Obviously when you lose in the Finals, it hurts . . . So you play, and you try to get back to this moment again, so you can, in a sense, redeem yourself or, in a sense, put yourself in that position again to succeed. So we’re blessed that we’re able to be here again in our second year together.”
Boston Coach Doc Rivers called Bosh, who missed the first four games of the series because of a strained abdomen, the “X factor” who helped push Miami into a return trip to the Finals. Bosh scored 19 points and added eight rebounds Saturday.
“Bosh made shots,” Rivers said. “A lot of them, we were running out at him, and he just made shots. . . . He gave them exactly what they needed.”
If Miami acquired some mental toughness in its bruising series with Boston, the Thunder sharpened its maturity by dismantling one of the league’s savviest teams in the San Antonio Spurs, wrapping up that series in six games after losing the first two on the road.
“They’ve gotten over humps themselves,” Bosh said. “They beat the hottest team in the league at the time in the San Antonio Spurs. And they present a lot of challenges. . . . They execute well and they play together well. But, you know, we do the same thing.”
Under heavy pressure Saturday, Miami offered some convincing proof of that. James provided 32 points and 12 rebounds, but the Heat also got key baskets from various corners of its lineup.
Perhaps none was more crucial than the trio of threes dropped by Bosh, which helped the Heat unlock a tight game that featured a 13-minute stretch from midway through the third quarter until midway through the fourth during which neither team led by more than two points.
“We found out a lot about ourselves,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem. “When our back was against the wall, we came out and we took care of business. OKC is a great team. They’ve got a lot of weapons. They have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things. We definitely have to get ready for another fight.”
When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m.
Where: Oklahoma City