Four years ago, the Miami Heat and team president Pat Riley created what looked like the NBA superteam that would challenge the very competitive nature of the league itself. After two championships, four conference titles, and a whole lot of public interest, this particular iteration of the Heat is no more. With the irreplaceable LeBron James heading back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the trio he formed with Chris Bosh (still in Miami for the foreseeable future) and likely Heat lifer Dwyane Wade will no longer strike fear into the hearts of rivals. This group didn't reach the lofty, history-altering accomplishments promised by their union, but they still stand as the dominant figures in basketball — both culturally and on the court — over this relatively short period of time.
The coming years and decades will decide the Big Three's true legacy, but we can still use this day to look back on the experience itself. There's no way to sum up this team and its effect on the NBA in a mere list. Nevertheless, here are 10 memorable (and positive) moments, in chronological order, that help give a sense of all the Big Three did in their four years together.
1. The Welcome Party
One night after ESPN aired The Decision, the Miami Heat welcomed LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade to AmericanAirlines Arena for a big welcome party. In case you forget, it was all a little much:
The Decision was unpopular, to say the least, but this event arguably did more to cast the Heat, rather than just LeBron, as basketball villains. They celebrated signing three big contracts as if it were a championship in itself, suggested that they could win as many as seven titles together, and generally acted as if several players donning the same jersey afforded the franchise special privileges. Events for season-ticket holders always get overwhelmingly positive, and it's important to keep that in mind for context, but this was a new kind of excess. By extension, the Heat became a living, breathing avatar of basketball hubris.
2. The Return to Cleveland
On December 2, 2010, the somewhat disappointing 11-8 Heat ventured to Cleveland for LeBron's first game at Quicken Loans Arena as a visiting player. It was arguably the most anticipated matchup of the NBA season, in part because there were legitimate concerns that he would be the target of serious violence. Instead, he received a torrent of boos and a whole lot of negativity. The Heat dominated the game, winning 118-90 behind a masterful performance from James (38 points on 15-of-25 shooting, plus eight assists and five rebounds). The victory also seemed to jumpstart Miami's season — it was the third win in a streak that eventually reached 12, with that loss (to the Dallas Mavericks, who would figure in this season again, if you forget) being followed by a run of nine-straight wins.
3. That Photo
In the first quarter of a January contest against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wade found James for a nice, if somewhat familiar, dunk on the break:
Yet the highlight will live on for years because of a single photograph. Morry Gash of the Associated Press captured this shot, in which Wade seems to be heralding the coming of an avenging angel who just happens to have taken the form of the world's best basketball player:
And the rest of basketball cowered in fear.
4. A Full-Court Alley-Oop
While the Big Three will go down in history for their stats and accomplishments, it's important to remember that they served as the NBA's most dependable highlight factory for the past four years, to the point where judging the quality and buzzworthiness of a single alley-oop or dunk become a challenge in itself. My favorite of the bunch came in February 2011 in the midst of a first-quarter evisceration of the Indiana Pacers, because that's when Wade found James for a full-court alley-oop:
Try to consider everything that had to go into this play — the vision, the ingenuity, the gall, the athleticism, the execution, etc. It reconfigures the court over the course of a few seconds.
5. LeBron Finally Gets Past the Celtics
Prior to LeBron's arrival in Miami, he had struggled mightily to get past the Celtics (who had their own Big Three), with James's awful and extremely confusing 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 5 (plus a weirdly quiet 27p/19r/10a triple-double in Game 6) serving as a genuinely troubling conclusion. The 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Heat and Celtics, then, served as a major moment in his career. Not only did the Heat dispatch the (admittedly aging) Celtics in five games — James served as the best player in the pivotal Game 4, scoring 35 points in a 98-90 overtime win to put Boston in a very difficult position. The series victory wasn't exactly surprising with the Heat so heavily favored, but it did serve as a major moment in the career of a generationally amazing player. Unfortunately for the Heat, their performance in the series (followed by another stellar series against the top-seeded Chicago Bulls) did not result in a title.
6. LeBron and Co. Battle Back Against the Celtics and Pacers in 2012
In retrospect, the 2012 postseason looks like the moment in which LeBron and the Heat figured out how to win together. As it happened, though, their success was anything but assured. An injury to Bosh in the conference semifinals against the upstart Indiana Pacers forced a dominant performance from James and Wade in Game 4 to avoid going down 3-1, with the two stars combining for 70 points, with LeBron accounting for 40 (on 27 shots), plus 18 rebounds, nine assists, two blocks, and two steals. It was one of the greatest individual performances in playoff history.
The conference finals against the surprisingly feisty Celtics proved even more dramatic. With the Heat facing elimination in Game 6, James tackled the challenge with undeniable focus on his way to 45 points (19-of-26 FG) and 15 rebounds, scoring from everywhere but also dominating from the post in a way he hadn't to that point in his career. In Game 7, the Big Three controlled the fourth quarter as a group, scoring all 28 Heat points to break a deadlock through three periods and vault the Heat to their second-straight title. The team's undeniable promise was quickly becoming reality, with James taking on a clear role at the top of the Miami hierarchy.
7. Their First Title
After two dramatic series, the five-game victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals was somewhat anticlimactic on the court. However, it remains notable if only because this trio, which at one time looked guaranteed to win championships with little opposition, finally reached the pinnacle of the sport. A two-year wait might not seem that long to most teams, but for the Heat it helped establish just how difficult it can be to win a championship no matter the talent on hand. Their triumph carried many emotions — relief for James and everyone responsible for bringing the team together, a validation of the free-agent superteam experiment, and the feeling that there would be much more to come.
8. The 27-Game Winning Streak
The Heat will always be judged by what they did or didn't accomplish in the playoffs, but over the 2012-13 regular season they made a strong case for being judged as one of the best squads in the history of the league. On February 1, the Heat lost to the Pacers 102-89. They didn't lose again until March 27, a run of 27 straight victories that ranks as the second-longest in NBA history. While a glance at the schedule doesn't suggest that Miami faced overwhelming competition, the streak was impressive in large part because the NBA (and really every professional sports league) is full of traps and pitfalls over the course of a very long season. Most teams simply can't maintain this level of focus amidst road trips and various other kinds of distraction, but the Heat did. The fact that it happened is remarkable enough — it doesn't require much in the way of deep explanation.
The most exciting game of the streak, by far, came in Cleveland on March 20, when it was at a mere 23 games. At the 7:43 mark of the third quarter, the undermanned (and not very good anyway) Cavaliers led 67-40 in what seemed like the closing game of a remarkable run. However, the Heat went on a 55-19 run over the next 16 minutes of the game to grab a nine-point lead of their own. Watching it as it happened was at once confusing and enthralling, as if the Heat were discovering levels they didn't know they had. The streak ended seven days later in Chicago, but the full two-month run perhaps proves the team's excellence better than anything they did in the postseason. They just had more than anyone else.
9. Ray Allen and Chris Bosh Save the Heat in Game 6
If the Heat's 2012-13 season looked like an extended romp on the way to back-to-back titles, then the San Antonio Spurs quickly absolved everyone of that notion in the NBA Finals. A Game 1 win gave San Antonio homecourt advantage, and in Game 6 they were seconds away from winning one of the more surprising championships in recent NBA history.
Then Chris Bosh and Ray Allen saved the day:
This play will go down as the memorable moment of the Big Three's time together and figures to be a mainstay in montages of dramatic NBA moments until the league no longer exist. Bosh, who later had the game-saving blocked shot in overtime — grabbed the ball and Allen had the foresight to get in position to save the season. It was a simple play, in a way, but it's often toughest to execute in the most dramatic moments.
More than anything, though, the play displayed how the Heat became more than a collection of talent. Bosh was always part of the Big Three, but he succeeded in Miami because he understood his role and how to affect games without serving as the focal point. To put it another way, he began to think of himself as a star role player rather than a diminished star. Allen, on the other hand, was always a role player for the Heat, albeit a very famous one who had been a star for many years. Essentially, Miami won titles because they learned how to shape a team from considerable raw materials. When Allen hit this shot, he ensured that this group would be known forever as a basketball team, not a villainous collection of talent.
10. LeBron Returns From Crampgate for One Last Moment of Glory
It's difficult to put this any other way: LeBron's final season in Miami was anticlimactic at best and downright boring at worst. With Wade taking planned breaks to conserve energy for the playoffs, their regular season was always going to be a bit dull. Then, when they got to the postseason, the top-seeded Pacers had degenerated into something miserable and posed little real challenge to the Heat's making a fourth-straight NBA Finals. Luckily, a rematch with the Spurs figured to be something really special, perhaps even another seven-game classic.
It wasn't, obviously — the Spurs were pretty clearly the better team throughout and deserved to win in five games. Along the way, though, LeBron gave us one final representative Big Three experience. After missing the final minutes of a tight Game 1 with cramps, James received the sort of criticism that had seemed to be a thing of the past following his titles. There was something a little pathetic and perfunctory about the outcry, but it was still there, a reminder of how divisive he could be. Then, in Game 2, James dominated as only he can, scoring 35 to even the series, win homecourt advantage, and seemingly give us the amazing series we all expected. Even if just for a moment — the final time, it turns out — he seemed to have bent the NBA to Miami's will.
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