The next time LeBron James is in this tunnel, it will be to take the court against the Boston Celtics.
MIAMI -- Erik Spoelstra deployed lineups he never thought he’d use outside of garbage time. Mario Chalmers took 12 3-pointers. And during the most important possession of the game, the ball ended up in Joel Anthony’s hands.
Those were some of the details of the Miami Heat’s 97-91 Game 5 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, a win that closed out the series. In the big picture and within the ultimate judgment of this Heat team, none of these factors really matter. The Heat certainly hope some of them will never happen again.
The Sixers, who never stopped battling, earned the Heat’s respect in this series but they never seemed to have their full attention. The Boston Celtics are due in Miami for Sunday’s Game 1 of what probably won’t be your average conference semifinal series. And Boston has been present in the Heat's consciousness since last fall.
There are no boilerplate “it’s a long season” and “we’re taking it one game at a time” axioms to explain away the truth. Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers are the back-to-back champs and the Chicago Bulls are the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But the Heat were built to try to -- no, make that to beat Boston.
The methodology of Dwyane Wade’s recruiting and Pat Riley’s selling of Miami to LeBron James and Chris Bosh was part strategy and part homage to the Celtics. All of the events a preamble for what finally starts Sunday, a series that holds huge promise for entertainment and huge stakes for the parties involved.
“We always felt it would happen at some point,” James said after he scored 16 points with 10 rebounds in Wednesday’s win. “We have to play Boston to get where we want to get. It’s here now. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
A challenge, indeed. The Celtics polished off the Knicks in their first-round series with aplomb, silencing Madison Square Garden on the way out. The Heat, meanwhile, hardly were as impressive in dispatching the Sixers. After three sufficiently effective victories, the last two games of the series were hardly a reflection of the Heat’s momentum from the end of the regular season.
After an uneven and lackluster effort in Game 4, Wade, James and Bosh on Wednesday combined to miss 32 shots, and two of the Heat’s starters didn’t play in the second half.
But for a team that has struggled at times this season in tight games, most recently Sunday, getting a key defensive stop and then scoring on their final four possessions to close it out put a tidy bow on things. Mostly because they just wanted to get it over with, an emotion Wade personified when he dribbled downcourt and threw in a dunk at the buzzer instead of merely dribbling out the clock.
“It was good for us playing that team, it was a battle each and every game,” said Bosh, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds. “ It was good for us to have that stress of having to execute down the stretch. It was good for us to have those emotions.”
The stress will be nothing compared to what the Celtics are expected to bring, something Bosh openly acknowledged. That was why there wasn’t a hint of celebration after the buzzer, even though it was the first time in Bosh’s career he’d advanced to the second round. The series win over Philadelphia also marks the first time the Heat have made it out of the first round since they won the title in 2006.
For Wade, who said that title season seemed like an “eternity” ago, all he got was a sarcastic handshake from James for reaching May for the first time in five years.
That’s all because of the undercurrent that surged through the first two weeks of the playoffs in both Boston and Miami. The first round was merely the undercard to a main event, a series that has an excellent chance to define the Heat’s season as a success or a failure.
Finishing off the Sixers was a relief for the Heat, not just because Philadelphia’s up-tempo style and variety of lineups presented uncomfortable challenges, but also because it relieves the burden of not looking ahead. The Heat have been on the path to meeting Boston for so long that it became stressful, at times, not to ponder the demands it now brings. That's especially true after both the Heat and Celtics took 3-0 playoff series leads last week.
“Players on both sides are looking forward to it,” Spoelstra said. “We understand where we are in this league and we understand where the Celtics are. They have proven themselves. If we want to get anywhere, if we want to go and get the goals we set for ourselves we have to go through them. It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t play them.”
On Thursday, the Heat will come in for meetings. They'll begin to go over the scouting reports and lay the groundwork for the game plan against the Celtics. There won’t be many revelations. The players know each other and have been talking about playing each other and beating each other for so long it seems like second nature.
“I think they knew it, we knew it, I think everybody knew it,” Bosh said. “It wasn’t if, it was when.”