Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Miami Heat: 2011-12 NBA Champions

It was almost surreal to see as the final seconds counted down in American Airlines Arena.

As soon as the clock read 0.00 an explosion of euphoria  was unleashed in the city of Miami and throughout the country as the Miami Heat won the NBA championship in a blowout fashion against the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 to clinch the NBA Finals series 4-1. This is the second title for the Heat franchise, but the first of the Miami Big 3 era.

This championship is the vindication of the grand experiment that Heat president Pat Riley set out in 2007 when he prepared the team's salary cap for the vaunted free agent class of 2010. When the Summer of 2010 came Riley was able to pull off arguably the biggest coup in NBA history when he retained guard Dwyane Wade and lured forward Chris Bosh along with forward LeBron James. James was the crown jewel of the free agent class and had teams like the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks along with the Heat clamoring for him to sign with them. On July 8 in an ESPN special titled 'The Decision' James let the world know that he picked the Heat. The next night the Big 3 were unveiled to their fans in a party-type atmosphere that immediately made them and the Heat the most hated team in the NBA. The fact that the Big 3 signed for less than their allowed maximum allowed the Heat to retain forward Udonis Haslem, center Joel Anthony, and sign guard Mike Miller to five-year contracts. Filling the rest of the roster with minimum salary players, the Heat were a top-heavy team. Immediately the question of chemistry rose up and they got louder once the Heat lost on the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat retooled after the NBA lockout was lifted by signing forward Shane Battier. Still the chemistry questions were there, but with this title Riley's gamble has paid off.

For James, this championship is a critic silencer. Ever since he was a Junior in high school an NBA title was not only expected, but demanded of James. Those expectations rose as he became the #1 pick of the 2003 NBA draft for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007 where he was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Since then every playoff loss and exit without a title fed a narrative that James didn't have the killer instinct needed to become a champion. That narrative only grew when he decided to go to the Heat. The narrative was was that because he had no killer instinct, he had to join someone who did in Wade. The Finals loss to the Mavs sent the narrative to astronomical levels. James showed this postseason that this would not stand anymore. When the Heat were down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the semifinals James pulled a stat line not seen since 1961 in Game 4 to even the series and eventually win it in six games. Facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals against his long time tormentor in the Boston Celtics, James pushed the Heat to victory in Game 6 to force a Game 7 which the Heat won at home. In the Finals after losing Game 1 James led the Heat to four straight wins culminating in this championship. The monkey is now off his back.

For Wade, this championship finds him in role reversal. When the Heat won the NBA title in 2006 it was him taking the mantle of leadership from center Shaquille O'Neal. He was the Finals MVP after leading the Heat back from a 0-2 hole against the Mavs. Since then Wade has been the Man in Miami even as the Heat had a 15 win season in 2008. When the Summer of 2010 came and he resigned with the Heat along with James and Bosh it was viewed as them joining his team. This season though Wade saw that this was no longer his team. Instead of stubbornly fighting to be top dog, Wade gracefully turned the leadership mantle to James. That was especially important as the playoffs arrived and Wade was clearly playing injured. That was most evident in Game 3 of the Pacers series where he only scored five points, the lowest playoff total in his career. Wade seemed to be almost at peace knowing that he was the #2 option and playing more to win the title for James than for himself.

For Bosh, this championship is also a critic silencer. When he joined James and Wade on the Heat he was often viewed as the forgotten member of the Big 3. His demeanor was also the fodder of jokes and nicknames such as Bosh Spice. Quietly though, Bosh became the Heat's most important player because his presence set up both the offense and player rotations. This was not seen by many though thanks to the alley-oop theatrics of James and Wade. When the Heat struggled Bosh was seen as the obvious choice to move vie trade. His true value was finally seen when he went down to an abdominal strain in Game 1 of the Pacers series. With Bosh out the lineup the Pacers took advantage until James and Wade took over. In the Eastern Conference Finals Bosh's absence allowed forward Kevin Garnett along with guard Rajon Rondo to almost push the Heat to elimination. Once he came back, initially from the bench, the Heat got back on track. When he came back to the starting lineup in Game 2 of the Finals his presence cancelled out the benefits the Thunder enjoyed with forward Serge Ibaka. Bosh has now proven that he is worthy of the label superstar and the contract he signed with the Heat.

For the role players the Finals were a coming out party.

First it was Battier, who struggled offensively the whole season. In the Finals he suddenly found his shooting touch. In Games 1 and 2 he made nine out of 13 3-point shots. He also took some key charges that put Thunder forward Kevin Durant in foul trouble. Then came rookie guard Norris Cole who was ready for the moment even as he seldom played in the playoffs. Cole helped lead the Heat back from a 17 point Thunder lead in the first quarter of Game 4 with eight points, scoring twice from downtown. Then in the same game it was guard Mario Chalmers's turn. Known as the 'Little Brother' of the Heat Big 3, Chalmers was often the target of criticism from hi teammates when he would make a mistake. That didn't happen in Game 4 as Chalmers stepped up scoring 25 points, including the Heat's last five as James was on the bench battling cramps. Chalmesr's performance showed why he is a two-time high school state champion in Alaska and a national champion with the University of Kansas. The Heat needed every point considering Thunder guard Russell Westbrook had a historic game of his own. Then in Game 5 with the chance to clinch the title on home court it was Miller's turn. For the past two seasons Miller looked like he was being held together by bubble gum and duct tape, yet he gave it all he could on the court. In Game 5 Miller got into a shooting zone rarely seen as he scored 23 points including seven of eight from downtown, almost tying Celtics guard Ray Allen's record of made 3-pointers in a Finals game. It was the perceived common thinking that the Heat were not a deep team past the Big 3 coming into the Finals and the Thunder had the better bench. That was proven wrong.

Finally, for Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra, this championship was vindication for him as well. Spoelstra started out working in the video room for the Heat and gradually climbed up the ladder. He was an assistant coach when the Heat won their first title in 2006 and was tapped by Riley to take the reigns in 2008. Since then Spoelsta has not missed the playoffs. When the Big 3 were assembled Spoelstra's ability to coach three superstars who have been #1 options was immediately questioned. The rough 9-8 start of last season was blamed on Spoelstra and most thought it was a matter of time before Riley would come back down and take over. Spoelstra weathered the storm but questions rose again when the Heat lost in the 2011 Finals. In the playoffs those questions were slowly being put to rest. In the Indiana series Spoelstra made the adjustment of putting Battier on Pacer forward David West, allowing James to focus offensively. In the Boston series he made the adjustment of putting Chalmers on Allen so the more athletic Wade could focus on Celtics guard Rajon Rondo. In the Finals the adjustment was to put Bosh in the starting lineup and putting Haslem on the bench instead of Battier. This title as a head coach proves that Spoelstra, like his players, learned from last season and has become better for it.

The first championship the Heat won in 2006 was sweet as they were the underdogs. This championship is even sweeter in the sense that not only were the Heat the underdogs, but that very few outside of Miami (and Seattle) wanted them to win. They learned from the anguish of losing the Finals on their home court & now have won on that court.

As Mike Miller would say...LET IT FLY!

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