Put Tim Duncan on the floor in the final minute of Game 6 of the NBA Finals and Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh might not have grabbed that crucial rebound and found Ray Allen in the corner for a three-pointer that forced overtime and denied the San Antonio Spurs a championship.
Put Roy Hibbert, and not Sam Young, under the basket in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron James perhaps would have thought twice about slashing around Paul George for a game-winning layup against the Indiana Pacers as time expired.
Certainly, it helped that Miami had the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers and a four-time league MVP on its roster, but the Heat’s second championship run in as many years was more about survival than domination. After steamrolling through the regular season — highlighted by a remarkable 27-game winning streak — the Heat was pushed to the limit in consecutive seven-game series that easily could’ve gone the other way if not for a few questionable decisions and good fortune.
“Everything plays into it,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said recently, as the Heat prepared to begin its pursuit of a third straight NBA championship on Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls. “When you finally climb that mountain, you look back on it, and reflect, you see how many factors have to be moving and clicking in the right direction and at the right time. Some of them you can control and some of them you can’t. You definitely have to have talent. Of course, you have to have some luck.”
For the Heat to join Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics (1959-66), Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (1991-93 and 1996-98), George Mikan’s Lakers (1952-54 in Minneapolis) and the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers (2000-02 in Los Angeles) as the only NBA franchises to win at least three consecutive titles, it will need much more to work out in its favor.
The Eastern Conference is stronger now that Derrick Rose has returned from his left knee injury to catapult Chicago back into the title hunt; since the Brooklyn Nets borrowed some Boston edge and swagger with the additions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett; and the Pacers have bolstered their bench and will eventually welcome back former all-star Danny Granger, who will miss the start of this season with a calf injury after a knee injury sidelined him last postseason.
“It’s tension, because you battle against certain teams, you battle against certain players, but it’s no rivalries,” James said, when asked about the threats to his crown. “It’s a lot of teams that want to knock us off. It’s a couple of teams in the Eastern Conference that hate us and we know who they are. We’re not going to hide behind that. We’re a focused group. We’re looking forward to the challenges that the season has to bring.”
Former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst George Karl believes that, considering the difficulty of the last playoff run and lingering concerns about the health of Dwyane Wade, the obstacles ahead are too steep for Miami to overcome. “If you gave me a choice of betting the field versus Miami, I think I’d take the field,” Karl said.
TNT analyst Steve Kerr also has concerns about the “emotional fatigue” of getting through another 82-game regular season and three more best-of-seven series just to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season. No team has made four consecutive Finals trips since the 1984-87 Celtics, who won twice and lost twice.
“It’s a difficult thing to do,” Kerr said. “Teams, they’ve been scheming and planning for Miami for three years, trying to figure out how to beat them. There’s a lot of stress that comes with that kind of run that Miami has been on. I think that if they are able to three-peat, it would be an incredible accomplishment.”
Miami anticipated this kind of success when James, the game’s best player, left Cleveland in 2010 to team up with Bosh and Wade and declared his intention to win “not one, not two, not three. . .” NBA championships. Although the team refuses to acknowledge it, the Heat has greater urgency to win with this potentially being the final time that the all-star trio will be together. James, Wade and Bosh can all opt out of their contracts after this season and become free agents July 1.
With the NBA implementing a new collective bargaining agreement with more punitive tax penalties, keeping dynasties together — and signing three maximum-salaried players — will be more difficult. Plus, all three initially took less money to join forces. James stirred controversy with his last decision and there has already been speculation about his future, since teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cavaliers potentially have the money to sign him.
“That’s not our concern as players, where he’s going to be,” Wade, 31, said. “We know where he is right now and we know where we all are. Everybody in here has a contract situation and the biggest thing is we’re dedicated to the Miami Heat. We’re dedicated to now. It does none of us any good to worry about the business side during the season because we won’t accomplish what we are together to accomplish — and that’s to try to win another championship.”
After making the jumper that secured Miami’s second title, James explained that claiming the second title was harder than winning the first. Now, he’s not trying to get ahead of himself by thinking about winning a third. “You don’t shortcut the process. We know every season is different,” James said, “but it’s nothing that can catch us off guard, because we’ve seen it all. As a group, this is Year Four for us. When that adversity comes, we know how to handle it.”
And if the result is the same as the past two seasons, Wade doesn’t care what it takes. “I was a Bulls fan and I look back and all people know was MJ won six [rings],” Wade said. “They don’t remember exactly how he got there. They don’t remember the tough games that he had, and him having to come back in Utah, and all these things, when it was looking questionable.
“We know we’re a special team and hopefully, one day when we all look back and we can look back at the great things we accomplished and being a part of history.”