By Sean Highkin
Nothing the Miami Heat have done in the Big Three era has been more difficult than making four straight NBA Finals. It's been done three other times, and never by a franchise not named the Lakers or the Celtics. But for as historic as the Heat's achievement was, it felt more like a formality than ever.
For the first time since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in 2010, they didn't face any serious adversity in the postseason. The Heat lost a total of three games in the first three rounds -- one to the Nets and two to the Pacers.
None of their three Eastern Conference series wins were ever in serious doubt.
The Heat blew through their first playoffs before losing to the Mavericks in the 2011 finals, but it wasn't the foregone conclusion this run was. Having just completed the most heavily scrutinized season in NBA history, the fledgling superteam was at times electrifying but still clumsy and disjointed in construction. The tired Decision-era questions of whether the team belonged to James or Wade hadn't entirely gone away. James' reputation is untouchable now, but only a year removed from the Cavaliers' 2010 playoff collapse against the Celtics and a wildly unpopular TV special, he was still the subject of plenty of criticism and skepticism. The Heat defeated the Celtics in five games in the second round, but that was a monkey they needed to get off their backs, something they have none of now. As recently as this week, Wade and James admitted that the Celtics won the mental battles with them the first two years they played in the postseason, the tests they credit with allowing them to mostly ignore Lance Stephenson's irritation tactics this May.
The Heat very nearly fell short of the Finals the following year. It took the greatest game of James' career in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to stave off elimination at the hands of the Celtics -- and this was after a dogfight of a second-round series with the Pacers that the Heat played partially without Bosh due to an abdominal injury. It was their first taste of the Pacers core that would supersede the Celtics as their primary rival in the East. The Pacers had not yet matured into the legitimate contender they would become, but they sent the Heat a clear message: they weren't going away anytime soon.
And they didn't. They took the Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals with a series strong enough to give them serious championship buzz throughout this season. Roy Hibbert was able to do the impossible and neutralize James at the basket. The Pacers' defense was so suffocating and their bigs so physically imposing that Shane Battier was taken out of the series entirely. This was the final hiccup in Erik Spoelstra's mastery of the lineup juggling he's perfected over the last four seasons.
This year, there was nothing. No more lessons to learn, no more adjustments to make, no more philosophies to rethink. The Heat dispatched the Bobcats with Al Jefferson playing on one foot, then took care of the Nets in a series that featured a total of two competitive games. The Pacers team they faced in the Conference Finals was mostly the same personnel-wise, but it was a team wracked with controversy that had become maddeningly inconsistent after a scorching start to the year. After the Heat stole Game 2 on the road, all doubt was pretty much removed.
Provided James, Wade and Bosh all return to Miami next year (a pretty safe assumption), becoming just the second team ever to advance to five straight Finals feels just as inevitable. The Pacers are their fiercest competition once again, and their bizarre collapse leaves plenty of questions going forward. The Chicago Bulls are banking on a healthy return of Derrick Rose, who has played 10 games over the past two seasons. The Nets are too old and the Raptors, Wizards and Hornets are still too young. The East has belonged to the Heat for four years, and it may be four more before they relinquish it.
* * *
Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.