- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Heat finished their romp through the Eastern Conference bracket with a 12-3 record.
The Miami Heat just disposed of the Philadelphia 76ers, the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics, and the NBA's winningest team, the Chicago Bulls.
And it took them only 15 games.
How did the Heat do it?
Here are seven reasons why Miami plowed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-3 record to earn a ticket to the NBA Finals:
1. LeBron James became king of clutch
He crumbles in crunch time. He doesn’t have a jump shot.
Over a monthlong stretch, LeBron James obliterated the two biggest knocks on his game. And now we’re left wondering if there’s anything he can’t do with a basketball.
Of course, James has had big clutch games before. But we haven’t seen a string quite like this. There was the transcendent performance in Game 5 against the Celtics, when he scored the final 10 points of the clincher to send the Eastern Conference champs packing. There was the outburst of nine points in the final 4 ½ minutes in Game 2 versus Chicago. Bottling up Derrick Rose in Game 4 may have been his most impressive feat.
And there was Game 5 in Chicago, with the Heat down nine points with 4:30 remaining. James proceeded to outscore the Bulls 10-7 for the rest of the game as the Heat won by three. He closed out yet another closeout game.
Perhaps the most staggering element of this stretch was that he used his 3-point shot as the dagger of choice. In the East playoffs, James shot 5-for-10 from downtown in clutch situations (defined as the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, and the game is within five points). The league average was 26 percent in those situations -- and James just about doubled it.
This run has been one for the ages.
2. Dwyane Wade played like a big man
With the undersized Joel Anthony -- who owns one of the lowest rebound rates for a center -- playing big minutes in the playoffs, the Heat desperately needed someone to compensate for his shortcomings on the boards.
So, naturally, they looked to their 6-foot-4 shooting guard.
When the Heat go small, their smalls must play big. And that’s exactly what Dwyane Wade has done for the Heat in the playoffs. While Wade has had better shooting performances in previous postseasons, his athleticism and versatility allow him to lift his team in other facets of the game.
During the playoffs thus far, he has averaged 7.2 rebounds per game, a rate you’d expect to see from a power forward. And then there are the blocks. Although he didn’t tally a block in Game 5 against Chicago, Wade's three swats in overtime in Game 4 were some of the biggest defensive plays you’ll find.
Wade is averaging seven-plus rebounds and a block per game in the playoffs; if he maintains that in the Finals, he would become the first player in the modern era 6-foot-5 or shorter to record those postseason averages.
3. Chris Bosh played like someone who’s been there before
Spending seven seasons in Toronto, Chris Bosh registered five All-Star appearances and zero trips past the first round of the playoffs. But this postseason, he's done everything in his power to end that trend.
Bosh has taken his licks from the media this season for his quirky comments. The “chill” remark back in November. The odd complaint about Omer Asik diving for a ball near his legs. He's been subject to the constant “Two and a Half Men” references.
But Bosh tuned it all out and played like a veteran of the big stage. With every smooth jumper, dribble attack to the rim and swift rotation on the back line, Bosh demonstrated that he deserves to be here. And perhaps most of all, that the Heat couldn’t get here without him.
4. Heat earned the freebies
The Heat made franchise history in Game 5 against the Bulls:
For the first time in the team’s 23-year history, the Heat won a playoff game by making just 26 field goals (their previous playoff low was 28 field goals).
So, how can a team win by scoring just 26 buckets in 48 minutes?
A) By playing stout defense
B) By working the charity stripe
While these two have been staples for the Heat this season, the free throws have anchored their sometimes shaky offense this postseason. The Heat thrive when they attack, and in turn, their free throw rate (free throws attempted per field goals attempted) reflects this aggressiveness. In the playoffs thus far, the Heat have posted a 40.0 percent free throw rate (two free throws for every five shots from the floor) which is better than any team that advanced past the first round.
According to Hoopdata.com, the Heat posted a better free throw rate than their opponents in all but two games this postseason. That’s what happens when you have two of the best whistle-inducing penetrators in the game.
With free throw rates this high, a pocket of conspiracy theorists will exist. That’s inevitable. But Wade, James and Bosh welcome contact and have always been the best foul-drawers in the league. This is who they are and who they’ve always been. This, really, is nothing new.
But it’s incredibly valuable.
5. Heat bought in to Spoelstra’s defensive identity
When Miami was struggling early this season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra emphasized that the Heat needed to “get back to their identity.” After each loss, he stood up on the podium and uttered that mantra over and over again.
When they started winning this season, most people assumed offensive synergy turned the tide. But the truth is that the Heat slowly built a defensive powerhouse from the ground up. The Heat deployed point guards and centers making the veteran minimum, and yet they were rising in the defensive ranks.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Heat solidified their standing as one of the top defenses in the league. And for all the fireworks and highlight-reel plays, Spoelstra had the foresight to understand that defense would be their rock in the postseason.
The Heat learned that speed kills on both ends of the floor. With their length and quickness, they can make up for their lack of height at the 5. They held teams below 95 points in 13 of their 15 playoff games and never allowed more than 103 points, the Bulls’ Game 1 total.
Spoelstra deserves a ton of credit for the adjustments he made in this series, but without his orchestration of the defense, the Heat wouldn’t be able to survive an off shooting night like they had in Game 5.
6. Heat were lucky
In order to make a title run, you need to be good -- but you also need to be lucky. Luck remains the least compelling ingredient to a title quest, but every champ needs the bounces and breaks here and there.
So where did the Heat get their breaks? Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo braces his fall probably a dozen times per game, but it just so happened that in one (controversial) tumble, his elbow buckled and dislocated gruesomely as he landed on the ground. He played essentially with one arm the rest of the series, forcing coach Doc Rivers to bench his All-Star in crunch time.
Not only did Rondo get injured, but so did Bulls center Omer Asik, who fractured his fibula early in Game 4 and never played again. Asik is no Rondo, but the Turkish big man has been essential to Chicago's second unit. Kurt Thomas filled in during Game 5, and the Heat outscored the Bulls by six points during Thomas’ 18 minutes on the floor.
But the luckiest events of all? The clutch shooting. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were unconscious down the stretch in many of these games. When 30 percent 3-point shooters turn into 100 percent shooters, there’s a healthy dose of good fortune sprinkled in there. Not to take anything away from what the Heat accomplished, but hero shots are heroic only because they are improbable.
7. The birth of the “Big Five”
There’s a notion that in order to win a title, a team needs to reach another gear in the playoffs. The Heat not only reached another gear, but they added one in the process.
Even though the Heat easily dispatched the 76ers and Celtics in the first two rounds, they still had something hiding in their back pocket, something we hadn’t seen all season -- their best lineup, that’s all.
The Big Five lineup of James, Bosh, Wade, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller made its Heat debut in Game 2 of the Chicago series. Think about that. A 58-win team that won eight of its first 11 games in the playoffs still hadn’t played its most versatile and powerful lineup. A month earlier, Spoelstra had abandoned the idea that he would see his five highest-paid players on the court this season.
And against all odds, it changed the entire complexion of the series -- and perhaps the Finals, as well. After the Big Five saw a short stint in Game 2, Spoelstra tabbed that lineup to finish Games 4 and 5. The score with that five finishing those two games?
Heat 48, Bulls 23, in 16 minutes -- or the equivalent of 144-75 per 48 minutes.
Even after 87 games, the Heat continue to evolve into something new. Will a championship be the last stage in their evolution?
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