LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had a plan when they decided to team up in Miami and chase a championship together.
Now they have their shot.
After the wild courtship, the decision and a difficult season, the Heat are playing for the title.
James scored 28 points, Wade added 21, and they led a furious rally in the final minutes as Miami eliminated Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls 83-80 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday.
James and Wade were simply spectacular down the stretch, each scoring eight during a game-ending 18-3 run as the Heat wiped out a 12-point deficit to win the series.
Now, they are headed back to the NBA finals for the first time since 2006, and in a fitting twist, they’ll be facing the Mavericks. Back then, with Wade leading the way, Miami beat Dallas to capture the championship. This time, it’ll be James and Dirk Nowitzki going at it for their first rings.
The Heat will host Game 1 on Tuesday night.
”There’s no sense of relief right now,” James said. ”We’ve still got work to do. We’ll look at this moment tonight, have a little bit of time tomorrow to go over this moment, what we just accomplished. But we get ready for Dallas very soon. We don’t take for granted this win and take for granted being Eastern Conference champions.”
Even so, this is exactly where the Big Three intended to be right from the start, like it or not. And it’s safe to say, most don’t.
The Heat, after all, wore that villain label well. The free-agent frenzy left a bitter taste for many, particularly James’ announcement on national TV.
”I understand a lot of the backlash that came at me going to Miami,” he said. ”But understand also, I did what was best for me, best for my family and best for me being a professional athlete.”
As for the hatred?
”What’s today’s date – the 26th?” James said. ”I say we’ve got about a month left. About a month left of continued of hate. We’ll see what happens next year.”
The Heat have more immediate matters at hand. They had their difficulties getting this far, including a five-game losing streak in March, but look at them now.
They just knocked off the team that won more games than any other, that boasted the league’s MVP in Rose and sent expectations soaring around Chicago in a way not seen since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were racking up championships.
Rose led Chicago with 25 points but hit just 9 of 29 shots. He fouled Wade on a key four-point play and missed a tying free throw with 26.7 seconds left.
”At the end, it’s all me,” Rose said. ”Turnovers, missed shots, fouls. The series is over.”
James had 11 rebounds and six assists. Wade’s late surge helped negate his nine turnovers. Bosh added 20 points and 10 rebounds as the Heat pulled out a dramatic win.
”We had to go through a lot of adversity,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. ”That struggle that we went through in March, where we lost five straight – all of them close games, where we didn’t execute down the stretch and weren’t able to close games out – that helped us. As painful as that was, we had to go through that fire together to be able to gain the confidence where we could be successful now in the postseason.”
The Bulls looked like they were in good shape up 77-65 with about three minutes to go, but Wade started the deciding run with a runner and layup. A 3 by James pulled Miami within 77-72 with 2:07 left. Rose then scored on a spin move in the lane, but fouled Wade as he nailed a 3, resulting in a four-point play.
Then, after a miss by Rose, James tied it at 79 with another 3 with 1:01 remaining, sending a loud groan through the arena.
James buried another jumper to put Miami ahead 81-79 with 29.5 seconds left after he stole a pass from Rose. He immediately fouled Rose, who missed the second free throw after making the first.
Kurt Thomas then tipped the inbounds pass, but the Heat recovered, leading to two free throws for Bosh. The Bulls still had one more chance to tie it, but Kyle Korver got doubled up top and passed to Rose on the wing. His 3-pointer got blocked by James, with Udonis Haslem doubling him as time expired.
”We don’t even know what happened,” Wade said. ”I’m not going to lie to you and say we do.”
It all seemed like a blur to him – and not just the late rally. The entire season, really.
Wade scrolled all the way back to those first few days of training camp, when the Heat gathered at Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s Panhandle, trying to limit distractions.
”It just seems like yesterday we were coming together as a new unit, and the Miami organization decided we needed to get away and (have) it just be about us and not let any outside distractions get in,” he said. ”And it was just about us.”
Now, James and his gang have their title shot.
He came close with Cleveland, getting all the way to the finals in 2007 but never could win it all. His surge at the end capped a terrific series in which he repeatedly made big shots and helped contain Rose at times.
For Chicago, it was simply a bitter end.
After losing out on their bid to land some combination of two of the Big Three in free agency, they built a solid team that leaped to the top of the Eastern Conference with a league-leading 62 wins. That’s probably little consolation after they let this one slip away. It could be a valuable learning experience, though, for a team making its first deep run.
”I do think experience helps,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. ”That being said, all these games came down to the end. … Tonight, we had the lead and we couldn’t hold onto it. Hopefully, we learn from that, move on. I think you use this experience to drive you so you can improve for next year.”
They took the opener 103-82, but the series soured for them after that. They were in every game and led this one for much of the way. But the Heat ultimately came out on top.
”You can see that we have two, three players that have no fear,” president Pat Riley said. ”Chris steps up there and makes two free throws that he’s got to make. LeBron and Dwyane struggling a little bit with their game most of the night, but they made some big, big shots.That’s what it’s all about. We’re just happy to be back in the finals.”
Notes: Not since the Houston Rockets dropped Game 1 to Phoenix in the 1995 Western Conference semifinals had a team won a best-of-seven after dropping the opener by more than 20. Twenty-three teams had lost Game 1’s in that situation and gone on to lose the series before the Heat eliminated the Bulls. … Thibodeau had high praise for rookie center Omer Asik, who missed the game with a season-ending broken left fibula. With Asik out, veteran Brian Scalabrine was active.