MIAMI – And so after all that – after local crises, after national referendums, after months of non-stop drama right down to Saturday night’s exhaustive Game 7 – this Heat season goes where everyone figured it should, where this team promised it would.
You can breathe again, South Florida. Everything survives for the Heat today. Their hopes. Their jobs. Their reputations. Their season travel plans, most of all, after a 101-88 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.
It’s on to Oklahoma City for the start of Tuesday’s NBA Finals. And that’s where the season stops, no matter the outcome, as for the second straight season the Heat plays for the championship.
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They didn’t beat Boston on Saturday as much as survive them in the Eastern Conference Finals. All series long the Heat bounced off the ropes, ducked under a couple of knockout punches and came back swinging. And all series long Boston swung back.
“No one said it would be easy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said a few times along the way, and they should engrave that on the Eastern Conference trophy the Heat were awarded Saturday night.
In Game 6 of this series Thursday in Boston, LeBron James had a historic night with 45 points and 15 rebounds. LeBron came with a mean look again Saturday, the one you wouldn’t want to cross. No smile. No banter.
But Boston took an early lead, rode it to halftime on a night of odd twists and unscripted turns. It wasn’t just on the court. Sitting behind the front-row seat of Heat owner Micky Arison were four little people, right out of Oz, dressed in green as Boston leprechauns. Who sold them tickets?
As if to say what the Heat was up against, even in the fourth quarter, the 6-1 Boston guard Rajon Rondo had a jump ball in a tight game against the Heat’s 6-8 Udonis Haslem. Rondo won the tip. Then Boston scored for a one-point lead.
As late as eight minutes left, Boston still led by one point. Then LeBron rumbled down the lane for a dunk and the lead, Chris Bosh made one of many game-shifting plays with a 3-point play and the Heat was off and running to Oklahoma City.
As if to say how big the Big Three of LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade were, they scored all the Heat’s points in the fourth quarter. LeBron finished with 31 points for the game, Wade with 23 and Bosh 19. How’s that for answering the bell?
The NBA got the best possible matchup to put in lights on the marquee. Southwest vs. South Beach. Oil vs. Suntan oil. This land of tornados and cactus against the land of hurricanes and orchids.
Most obvious of all on the court, it will be LeBron vs. Kevin Durant, the best player in the league against the one some say will supplant him.
The twist to the Finals: The Heat will be underdogs. That will take some verbal adjusting. For the past two years, they haven’t just been the top dog in every game they played.
They’ve caused non-stop blather whenever they lost. One study showed the Heat were 23 percent of ESPN’s multi-channel discussion the morning after a loss to Indianapolis.
That changes now. Oklahoma City is the favorite on merit. It has the risen talent of Durant. It has the fearless talent of Kevin Westbrook, whom the Heat passed in 2007 to draft Michael Beasley.
It has a lineup filled with good, young, strong role players like the sharp-shooting James Harden and center Serge Ibaka, who had the second most votes to LeBron on the NBA’s All-Defense team.
That’s up ahead. Take a breath. Take a rest. And take some enjoyment, Heat fans, from the idea that a team that’s delivered such loud storylines and constant drama goes right where it should.
Finally, it’s the Finals.
Follow at Twitter/davehydesports