Just under two months ago, the Miami Heat were the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with critics wondering if head coach Erik Spoelstra’s team would be able to make it out of their first round series.
Wednesday, the Heat will be one of the last two teams standing inside the NBA bubble playing in the league’s Finals for the sixth time in the last 15 seasons - and couldn’t care less what the critics are saying now.
Miami enters this year’s NBA Finals, being played at Walt Disney World near Orlando, after going 12-3 in the first three rounds and winning the Eastern Conference Finals in six games over the Boston Celtics.
Now, the Heat turn their attention toward another legendary basketball team that they’ll see for the first time in playoff history - a Los Angeles Lakers team, led by former Heat superstar LeBron James, seeking their 17th title months after the tragic death of former superstar Kobe Bryant.
“It’s pretty cool considering, when you really think about it, it’s you and one other team that are still left standing and one of the two will be raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said Monday. “But we know that the job isn’t done yet.”
Before beating the Celtics, Miami swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round and later shocked the Eastern Conference's top seeded team, the Milwaukee Bucks, in five games. A series win over the Lakers would give the Heat two series wins over top seeds - something that has been done in the postseason just twice since 2002.
“I’m happy. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, for 11, 12 years, and finally I’m here,” said Heat guard Goran Dragic, who will be playing in his first NBA Finals. “All the credit goes to those guys who are believing it and to my teammates. I’m just happy. I’ve been through a lot in those five years, ups and downs, and I’m just happy to be here and to be part of this big moment.”
Miami’s journey back to the Finals has been one that saw the Heat have two winning seasons over a five-year period, a span that saw the team win just one playoff series.
The Heat’s road to the Finals was a return to the spotlight for a team that was once led by James during the ‘Big Three’ era, a span that saw four straight Finals appearances and two NBA titles.
“Being a part of that culture allowed me to grow, allowed me to see what it takes to not only compete for a championship but also to win a championship,” James said during Tuesday’s media day. “So, it definitely put me in a position where I knew what it took. I saw what it took. But also, I fit that culture as well because of how hard I worked. It was a perfect match for those four years.”
The road this season was led by the superstar acquisition from last offseason in guard Jimmy Butler. The big name free agent came over in a sign-and-trade with Philadelphia and led the Heat in the regular season in points scored, assists and steals while being a vocal leader not afraid to speak his mind.
“I always just wanted to win, do whatever it took to win,” Butler said. “Nobody is taking it personally because we all have the same agenda. It’s not for stats. It’s not for fame. It’s not for none of that. It’s to win a championship. My leadership style, it works here.”
Butler has been supportive of his new team and teammates, wearing the high school jersey of Tyler Herro after the rookie guard’s record setting 37-point game in the conference finals along with the college jersey of Spoelstra after the Game Six win over Boston.
The Heat and Lakers both have had quite the road to get to the championship round, being in the NBA’s bubble for months without family members or fans cheering them on.
But for anywhere between the next four to seven games, Miami and Los Angeles have just one thing in mind: winning.
“We’ve been through a lot. Even though we were really assembled this year, not a team that’s been together for multiple years, with everything that we’ve been through our chemistry is strong,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “I think the fact that we enjoy each other away from the basketball court has really helped with the bubble environment and hopefully that will continue for us.”