MIAMI -- That team you were vaguely familiar with, the force that won 27 straight games and struck fear into basketball and showcased the league MVP and seemed bulletproof and built for a deep run -- that team showed up Monday and served up a devastating reminder.
And so today, when we take a quick second to reflect on the very beginnings, circa July of 2010, when LeBron James made his famous and smug proclamation -- "not one, not two, not three … " -- we do know, if nothing else, he correctly forecast the number of Eastern Conference banners for the Heat.
It's now three straight for the Big Three after pounding a Pacers' team too spooked to win a Game 7 at American Airlines Arena. From tip to buzzer in the 99-76 demolition, Miami was just too angry, too determined, too unwilling to come up short of a return trip to the NBA Finals and deal with the fallout. If the Heat carry this edge, the one they curiously lacked for stretches over the last few weeks, into the final round, they could successfully defend the championship.
Not that it'll be a simple task. It will be Heat vs. Spurs, flash vs. fundamentals and LeBron trying to avenge his Finals loss to Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in 2007, which happens to be the last time the thirsty Spurs tasted champagne.
"They just had that killer instinct, that look in their eye that they weren't going to be denied," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team was helpless. "They just had greater experience and greater know-how and they were able to reach a higher level than we were."
The next week or so should be entertaining and gripping because the Heat erased a few grave suspicions in their conference closeout game. They revved up their defense, suffocating the Pacers and turning Paul George, a star of tomorrow, into a rumor. They welcomed back Dwyane Wade, who played without a limp or a wince but with plenty of giddyup, and they watched Chris Bosh play up to his size, all on the same night. And of course, they had LeBron being LeBron. For all the heat he took about his supposed lack of clutchness, unfairly to a degree as usual, LeBron delivered in the moment for the second straight conference final, following his epic Games 6 and 7 against Boston last year.
"We respond very well," said Wade, who took 16 shots, one less than LeBron, and scored a series-high 21 points with nine rebounds after struggling mightily with his health and jumper. "I like the way our team is when we get to (these) moments because we have winners. We have champions in our locker room. You don't become a champion by luck."
The Heat didn't expect to be in the position of sweating out a series, and certainly it was due to a few factors. The Pacers held a considerable advantage in quality big men, Wade was hurt, Bosh was meek and LeBron by himself just wasn't enough. But champions rise and get it done, especially when they bring a four-time MVP, so you must give it up to Miami for finding its identity and avoiding an embarrassing loss.
Once again, they own the East. It really hasn't been a fair fight, even though two of their three conference titles went to the limit. The Bulls and a healthy Derrick Rose weren't ready in 2011, the Celtics were a step slow and old in 2012, and the Pacers crumbled when it counted in 2013. What's interesting is, had LeBron learned how to post up two years ago, Miami would be working on a third straight championship.
"Ever since I lost the Finals to Dallas," he said, "my mind frame changed that off-season. My mindset has been the same since we lost to Dallas. So I'm looking forward to this."
He should. He's a smarter and sharper all-around player now than the one who was swept by San Antonio in '07, and six years ago, he was pretty damn good. LeBron carried the Cavaliers into the Finals in what was the most impressive one-man show since Michael carried the Jacksons. He destroyed the Pistons in the conference finals in what still ranks as his greatest playoff series. In a smashing Game 5, he scored Cleveland's final 25 points in an overtime win. Then he went to the mat against Duncan and Parker with Boobie Gibson and Larry Hughes. That series went about as you might have expected.
In Game 1, LeBron managed 14 points. OK, he was a first-timer and this was understandable. He rallied with 25 the next game, then missed the game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer in the third game, then ran out of gas in a one-point Game 4 loss. It was too much to ask, anyway, to beat three future Hall of Famers and coach Gregg Popovich all by his lonesome. At least this time, LeBron is bringing reinforcements. We think, anyway.
"I think our team is more experienced," LeBron said. "My Cleveland team, we were very young, and they took advantage of everything we did. I think this team, this is our third year advancing to the Finals. So we're very experienced as well. We understand the opportunity we have. And I'm a much better player. I'm 20, 40, 50 times better. So yeah, we're all better."
A few words about the Pacers. They're at a crossroads of sorts, because they must find money for free agent David West and room in the rotation for Danny Granger when he returns from injury next season. They also must hope their two main young players, George and Roy Hibbert, take another step forward. If that happens, they'll be back. George had seven points and fouled out in Game 7. That was a harsh education. Hibbert had little impact for the first time this series. He built his rep the last few weeks taking advantage of an injured Tyson Chandler and an undersized Udonis Haslem, so we'll see what Big Roy does against some real big boys next time around.
Anyway, this wasn't their night, their series or their season to stretch well into June. The East belongs to the Heat, once again, and emphatically so. Plenty could go wrong against the Spurs, who are wiser and more composed than the Pacers. But as Game 7 showed, much can go right for the Heat when they're on their game.
Ray Allen can hit (or miss) open three-pointers. Birdman Anderson, the big man Miami lacked last season, will help against Duncan. The assorted help, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole and Haslem and Mike Miller, can chip in.
Bosh, if he brings the aggression he had Monday, can be a factor. Until Game 7, when he grabbed eight rebounds, Bosh averaged three rebounds against the Pacers. That was weak. He took too many jump shots from 20 feet away and was in no position to mix it up with Hibbert.
Wade can swing any series in Miami's favor if his knees cooperate and Miami goes to him early and often to get him involved offensively and into the flow.
"I'm going to play through pain because this is my job," Wade said. "I'll figure it out. There will be moments next series where I won't be looking so great. I'll continue pushing. I'll continue to do what I can to help Miami win another championship."
But you know this series comes down to LeBron, who'll bring the highest value of anyone on the floor, who can change a game at any time. And we saw last summer that he can win a championship, too. LeBron James is coming after the Spurs in the NBA Finals again, and is encouraged to know that this isn't 2007 anymore.