The Miami Heat was always supposed to be playing basketball on May 26. They had promised as much last summer during the giddy celebration that followed the transactions that allowed LeBron James and Chris Bosh a chance to join Dwyane Wade and construct a superteam. Their promise also promised as much, because even the weakest of supporting casts and most incompetent of coaches shouldn't have ruined a chance for a team featuring two players who are at the best at their positions, and one who isn't far off. Luckily for the Heat and their fans, the bench hasn't been that bad of late, and coach Erik Spoelstra is spectacular at what he does.
Chicago was different. Nobody but hounders of their team's message boards thought they would make it to the third round, much less with home-court advantage, and especially without significant injuries to players in Orlando or Boston playing a part. No, those teams stayed relatively healthy, even as Chicago actually did not, and the Bulls still flew to the league's best record.
That run ended Thursday, with the Heat winning 83-80 to make the NBA Finals. It ended at about the same spot that it started, with Derrick Rose attempting a 3-pointer (that missed) from Chicago's left elbow extended. It was the spot that had become home to Rose as he shot 40 percent from behind the arc in November and December, kick-starting what would become an MVP season.
Rose's touch from that spot dwindled as the season went on, but he improved his free-throw totals to more than make up for it. By season's end, he was leading Chicago to close win after close win with fourth-quarter offensive flourishes and the MVP furor was at fever pitch. It helped hide all of Chicago's weaknesses. The iffy offense. The inconsistent contributions from helpers like Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer. The fact that Rose, even at his best, certainly needed quite a few shots to score all those points.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, the rest of the league knew what was up. Derrick Rose, as he's done all year, summed it up best after Chicago's Game 5 loss:
"Everything is on me."
That's the problem. In this loss, Luol Deng battled foul trouble and needed 17 shots to score 18 points. Carlos Boozer came through with more annoying screams (I stopped counting at five) than field goals (one). Taj Gibson shot 0 for 4 in Games 4 and 5 after hitting for 13 of 21 to start the series. Kyle Korver missed 2 of 3 threes on Thursday. Keith Bogans is Keith Bogans. Kurt Thomas was at times Chicago's second-best player. Everything was on Rose. And he shot 29 times, scoring only 25 points.
And that's not what championship teams are made of. It never has been, unless something's gone dreadfully wrong within a playoff bracket.
We don't know if Miami is a championship team at this point, its upcoming series with Dallas is too close to call in the wake of this impressive win, but the Heat are at the same place they were last July. This is a team that should be winning championships. The way they've gone to get back to this same place, however, is the strange part.
"Nothing we've gone through," Spoelstra said after the win, "has been normal or traditional."
(It's at this point that we'd offer a sarcastic go-to phrase including a curse word that also references a famous fictional Scottish detective.)
Though we still have his slams from the 2007 Eastern Conference finals ringing in our ears, this series made a star out of LeBron James. I know that the Finals and the championship are the true test, and that we've seen him play like this before, but nobody entered a season with as little goodwill behind him as James. Name 'em. Not one.
He made that star turn to the fair weather observers because he dominated as a member of the Heat. He made his star turn in my eyes because he was aggressive when it counted the most, and because he mixed it up. Because it wasn't all 3-pointers (though that was the case down the stretch in Game 5, as James nailed 2 of 3 in the final two minutes) and dunks. It was the smart play, every time. It wasn't all talent and ridiculous athleticism. It was smarts and touch and all the right plays. He also shut down the league's MVP for the second straight fourth quarter, in games that could have gone either way.
(The last three games really could have gone either way, dammit. Geez, what a blow. Bugger all. Seriously. Now back to being an objective observer …)
Rose shot 4 of 23 in fourth quarters over this series, and 2 of 9 Thursday. He managed to squeak off one turnaround runner over James, but by and large LeBron had him completely in check. It wasn't even close. It was complete and utter dominance.
And while we're wary of giving the Heat credit for something that they're supposed to do, they did it. They didn't take the 76ers lightly, they imposed their will on the suddenly (by Miami's hand) squeaky Boston Celtics, and they came through with a focused four games in a row versus Chicago after suffering a Game 1 thumper.
This is what goes on in this league, this league full of grown-ups. Talent wins out. I'm not sure of the exact stats, but it's a pretty good percentage. Someday someone will look up talent-outing per 100 possessions.
But that's not to discourage us. And though the puff pieces that followed these Bulls around the league got to a lot of fans, including some Bulls fans (especially this one), this is a Heat team that few outside of Miami were rooting for. But you can't get discouraged. Because the season gave you more than you expected, before it gave you exactly what you expected.
So that's why you think of everything, all at once. Those Saturday nights when it seemed nobody could stop them, and that nobody could stay in front of Derrick ("FROM CHICAGO") Rose. Those late Tuesdays where it seemed like Chicago hadn't given up more than 12 points in a 22-minute span. The time you took to look back at the month that was, and the quiet "wow" that left your mouth when you realized the team just won 13 of 16. Joakim Noah, bloody everywhere. Deng on the court, playing his 38th minute, even though the Bulls were up 18 with three minutes left. Tom Thibodeau's voice, rivaling Tom Waits' even by Halloween. Seventy-one wins in 98 tries.
That's what you think of, after you get up from the repeated body blows that follow an 18-3 run to end the game over the last 3:55.
That's what I'll think of, as I pack the gear up for the final time this season to drive back into the plains. I'm not sure I'll have enough time, in the two-hour drive, for all the good memories. Thanks for that, Chicago.
And thanks for holding your own, Miami. Pretty damn impressive, guys. Now keep it up. You've got a title, still to earn.