In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: Miami Heat in NBA Finals becomes rite of spring in South Florida

Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade built the Heat to withstand all challengers. They built a team for the long run.

So what we have in Miami now is a rite of June. The air turns sultry, the Royal Poincianas bloom and the Heat goes to the NBA Finals.

The Heat is ripening. How juicy it is.

The Heat, treating Game 6 like a do-or-die Game 7, squeezed all suspense out of the Eastern Conference finals Friday with a 117-92 elimination of the Indiana Pacers.

No, Miami is not going back to Indiana. Was that ever really in doubt?

Instead, Miami will go to either Oklahoma City or San Antonio in its fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals starting June 5. Miami defeated those foes for its 2012 and 2013 titles.

Four years in a row. It’s becoming inevitable: Count on mosquito season, count on championship season. The Heat becomes the first team since the 1987 Celtics to accomplish such consistent excellence.

After destroying Indiana, and perhaps its current roster, the Heat will add another banner to the rafters, but that’s mere decoration for this team, which has its eyes on the trophy and the distinction of becoming just the fourth NBA franchise to win three consecutive championships.

LeBron James, neutralized by foul trouble in Game 5 and limited to a career-playoff-low seven points in a meager 24 minutes, was expected to bounce back. The only question was, how high? Early on, it was like watching a seething volcano. Then, it was all red-hot lava burning everything in its path. James hit six of his first eight shots and finished with 25 points. As on Wednesday, he spent an unusual amount of time on the bench, but this time it was because he sat down to relax with a quarter left.

The Big 3 played like a concert trio, in harmony, for their most balanced performance of the postseason. Wade had 13 points, six assists and six rebounds. Chris Bosh had 25 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

James fed Bosh for a reverse layup, Wade fed James for a fadeaway jumper, James fed Wade for a floater. Spectacular not in their stats but in their synchronicity.

When the scoreboard flashed 82-48 midway through third quarter, you almost did a double-take. This was like a 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 match in the Wimbledon semifinals, or a boxer’s knockout in the first round. It was an argument for a mercy rule in the NBA. It was equal parts annihilation by the Heat and resignation by the Pacers.

Pacers president Larry Bird watched — and wished he didn’t have to — chewing gum furiously to prevent himself from ripping his hair out. The team he constructed to displace the Heat fulfilled its potential in the first game of this series, barely won Wednesday with James exiled to the bench, disappointed in three losses and got humiliated in the fourth.

What did the effort of winning the Eastern Conference regular season accomplish? Indiana’s coveted home-court advantage proved moot against the Heat while the Heat benefitted from the mental boost of being underestimated.

Bird and Frank Vogel go home to sort out questions similar to those the Heat faced in 2011, after the loss to Dallas in the Finals. Indiana’s team, in the heart of basketball country, has never won an NBA title.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row,” Vogel said. “We’re playing against the Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls of our era.”

The Heat has been progressively sloughing off the malaise of the regular season, when Wade sat and rested his refurbished knees for 28 games. The first layer came off in a sweep of Charlotte, followed by a 4-1 dispatch of Brooklyn, culminating in a 12-3 record in the playoffs. The Heat may be a year older and slower, but they are peaking perfectly.

“Whatever it takes,” is Spoelstra’s mantra. Last year his Spoisms centered on the concept of “identity.” He chose practical over poetic this year. Had to. The way he nursed Wade along as fans and doubters — and even James — groused about the Heat’s decline showed great vision. He tinkered with the parts and created a beautiful patchwork quilt.

“It takes more than three,” Bosh said. “We have the best teammates in the league.”

Lance Stephenson was James’ antagonist again. The human gnat was flitting around James’ head, buzzing (but not blowing) in his ear, yakking his usual smack, trying to win the mind game.

He went too far when he lightly, stupidly cuffed James in the chin. He picked up a flagrant foul when he clothes-lined Norris Cole going for a loose ball. He also absorbed a vicious shove from Shane Battier. Udonis Haslem taunted him with expletives from the bench.

But this time, Lance was merely a diversion. He couldn’t frustrate James. Stephenson finished with 11 points and one assist. Bygones were bygones at the end, when James and Stephenson hugged. James gave him a pat on the tummy, like a big brother would.

Paul George, who scorched the Heat for 37 points in Game 5, had to have another supreme performance for any hope of an upset. But George isn’t ready to be heir to James. He missed his first six shots as Indiana fell behind 60-34 at halftime.

Rashard Lewis proved to be the super-sub for this series, and the latest example of the Heat’s bottomless bench of role players. Chris Andersen — more “Boardman” than “Birdman” — was back, dictating the early ornery tone and finishing with 10 rebounds.

Miami is 10-0 in home playoff series clinchers during the Big 3 era. Indiana had been 3-0 in elimination games this playoff season but couldn’t sustain its survival mode. As has been their bad habit, the Pacers abandoned the approach that got them this far and reverted to impatient shots, sloppy passes and indifferent defense.

James’ playful boast that the Heat could win a half dozen titles or more doesn’t seem so presumptuous anymore.

“We know we still have work to do, but we will not take this granted,” James said.

It’s June in Miami. Rainy season. Championship season.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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