This is what champions do. They rise up. They answer doubts and opponents with a vengeance and assassin’s eyes. They somehow summon their greatness just when the stage is biggest and loudest, just when you wonder if they can.
And they do it when everything is teetering — when they simply must.
The Heat rose up here Monday night.
Emphatically, in one of the biggest games in the history of South Florida sports, the Heat rose up.
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Dwyane Wade rose up, too.
And LeBron James? At one point in the second quarter he rose so high for an alley-oop dunk that he literally had to tilt his head so it wouldn’t bang into the rim.
That was the Heat, all night. Rising. And lifting a city with it.
Everybody and everything the Heat needed responded.
The champs played like it when there was absolutely no option not to, and that is why Miami is headed back to the NBA Finals for a chance at a repeat title.
Never a doubt, right? (Right!?)
“This is why this team was put together,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “For moments like this.”
Not to experience those moments.
To own them.
Heat 99, Indiana Pacers 76 in this must-win Game 7 only means the Eastern Conference crown, of course.
Exhale. Rest up for a couple of days. Because now it starts all over again here Thursday night when Miami hosts San Antonio in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
This thrill ride the Heat is taking us on isn’t over, and it isn’t because so much went right for the Heat, all over the court.
A maniacally menacing defense blanketed Indiana, forcing 21 turnovers. The Heat led the taller Pacers in rebounds.
LeBron was LeBron, with 32 points, aggressively earning 16 free throws (and making 15). Miami’s ball-movement was exceptional; Miami created 38 free throws for itself.
Chris Bosh? His offensive slump continued (nine points), but he contributed eight rebounds and set a tone with his motor on defense.
But Wade! He was the star of the game.
Fighting past that bruised right knee, he was as active as we’ve seen him all postseason, scoring 21 points to end a career-worst streak of 12 straight games not hitting 20.
“My team did some things to loosen me up early, and my confidence kept growing,” said Wade.
He was being modest.
Said Spoelstra, of Wade: “When you count him out and you need him most and the competition is at its fiercest, he’s going to be there for you. He has a way in big games of getting bigger.”
Spoelstra himself deserves credit, too.
He had LeBron guard Pacers star Paul George, which not only erased George and held him to seven points, but also freed up Wade to not exert so much energy defending George.
Two late snapshots told you how merrily the night went and ended for Miami.
LeBron exited the game with 5:05 still to play, his early rest well earned.
Exhausted, James still had the presence of mind to offer a respectful fist-bump to soccer heart throb David Beckham, seated courtside.
At 3:44 Wade left the game to a huge, appreciative standing ovation, and leading the applause was club president Pat Riley.
You must understand, Riley usually is as stoic during games as if he were made of marble.
It takes a lot for him to applaud. Wade had shown him a lot.
Everybody rose up.
I include the fans who made a blizzard of white inside the downtown bayside arena, and all but made the place sway with noise and delight.
The “Let’s go Heat!” chants didn’t even wait for the game to start.
Every seat was filled before tipoff — almost unheard of here. I have not heard the building louder all season, and with reason.
This was only the eighth time in our sports history Miami has hosted a Game 7 in basketball, baseball or hockey.
And only when the Marlins were winning a World Series championship the night of Oct. 26, 1997, did any of those Game 7s feel bigger than this one newly won.
“It’s such a beautiful place to be, a Game 7,” noted Spoelstra.
(Prettier still when you win!)
The way the Heat played and the way the crowd sounded both showed an awareness of everything in play.
All knew how big this game was. The rectangle of the court couldn’t hold it. The stakes were far greater.
For this team only, they always are – this team that must win everything or hear somebody calling it a failure.
A loss by the favored, reigning champs would have seen all of the harshest critics out of their caves and howling again, the national media labeling Miami’s Big 3 era a disappointment and effectively finished.
A loss would also have enflamed some small signs of internal turmoil that had become evident earlier in this series. LeBron had said it was “obvious” Wade and Bosh were “struggling,” and that was why he “went back to my Cleveland days” in taking much more upon himself offensively.
Wade went public with wanting more “opportunities,” meaning more shots, more involvement. There was no mistaking he meant James when he criticized games coming down to one Heat player trying to “self-will it.”
Monday night shot bolts of sunlight into all of those dark places.
All is well again for now.
The Finals are next.
The biggest dreams live on.