OKLAHOMA CITY -- For the Heat and its fans, getting back to the NBA Finals is all that really mattered.
The lockout-shortened season was like that leafed-over prologue to the book you have read a 100 times. The first three rounds of the playoffs were the equivalent of a symphony orchestra tuning its strings. Finally, the gray-haired conductor levels his baton against the well-worn music stand. Tap, tap, tap. At last, the house lights have been dimmed.
Redemption in the key of “please don’t be flat.”
After collapsing in the 2011 NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, the Heat is back on the big stage, but this time it faces an even better opponent. Heat versus Thunder: It’s … atmospheric.
The Mavericks defeated the Heat in 2011 with experience, poise and a big German named Dirk Nowitzki. The Thunder, the Western Conference’s new guard, knocked off those Mavs in the first round.
The Thunder then dispatched Kobe Bryant and the Lakers with relative ease in the Western Conference semifinals. For an encore, the Thunder took down the seemingly invincible San Antonio Spurs.
So, now, here’s the paradox: The Thunder is favored to win the NBA Finals, but the burden of expectations is on the Heat. On paper, the Thunder is perhaps the better team with the added benefit of home-court advantage. Still, the Heat remains the NBA’s blockbuster summer movie, the box-office smash that hints at a Shakespearian tragedy.
Throughout the regular season, the Heat showed signs of a flawed team. Its record on the road in the second half of the season against the NBA’s playoff-bound teams (2-9) revealed weaknesses. In the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Heat fell behind the Pacers 1-2 before winning three games in a row. It was the same story only magnified against the Celtics.
But, with those comebacks, the Heat found a trait that was missing last season, resiliency.
“We went through a lot of lessons last year, and experience can be probably the most powerful teacher,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is a different journey. We’ve built up some character and toughness. We’ve been tested really in all three rounds.”
LeBron James enters the Finals playing the best basketball of his career. He averaged more than 33 points a game in the Eastern Conference finals and saved the Heat from elimination in Game 6 in Boston with a performance for the ages — 45 points, including 41 in the first three quarters, 15 rebounds and five assists.
Still, the most important questions remains: Can he do it in the Finals? Can he bury his failures of the 2011 Finals once and for all?
In Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, the Heat led by seven points with nine minutes to play but lost. Miami was on the verge of taking a 3-1 lead in the series, and James went scoreless in the fourth quarter. In Game 5, he managed only two points in the final period, and the Heat watched the series slip away.
“I didn’t play well,” James said. “I didn’t make enough game-changing plays that I know I’m capable of making, and I felt like I let my teammates down.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s something I haven’t said before. Just didn’t make enough plays.”
James displayed a new level of maturity this season on and off the court, and it allowed his game to flourish. He earned his third MVP award along the way. But now he must confront all that went wrong in last season’s Finals and rise above those memories. It will be the biggest challenge of his career.
“I’m happy, and I’m humbled that I can actually be back in this position less than 12 months later to do a better job of making more plays, more game-changing plays out on the floor on a bigger stage,” James said. “So we’ll see what happens.”