Posted Jun 10 2012 1:57AM
Miami -- What does Chris Bosh's strained abdomen and his teammates have in common? Each just got a gut check. And lived to tell.
The last few games of a tense Eastern Conference final showed how far the Heat have come since last summer and also where they're headed, back to the NBA Finals and a chance to atone for their basketball sins.
They'll arrive in Oklahoma City bent on changing perceptions about their ability to meet challenges and deliver on promises made, doing a bit of both in a foretelling 48 hours against the stubborn Celtics. They'll play for a championship with the hunch that LeBron James is over the stage fright that infamously froze him in fourth quarters last June. They'll start Tuesday comforted that Bosh, after an injury that left him in limbo for three weeks, is now in the running for Sixth Man Of Next Year following a new role and a terrific Game 7. And they'll be Big Three ready with Dwyane Wade, the only one who knows what it's like to actually sip champagne.
The Heat found out about themselves against the Celtics. They were tested, had their souls stripped bare, were thrown to the edge twice and summoned up a little fortitude, and a lot of LeBron, to win another East title. It's an achievement they'll get to enjoy for about five minutes until the public reminds them they haven't done anything yet, that all they did was beat an old team, and barely at that.
You know, championship or bust for this crew, right?
Well. Unlike last summer against the Mavericks and their Lone Star (Dirk Nowitzki), the Heat will actually be underdogs to all that Thunder. That won't win them any sympathy, obviously, but if nothing else, the Heat should be a lot more relaxed. And they'll have the experience of Games 6 and 7 against Boston to remind them that anything's possible.
"I think everything that we go through helps us, even though at times it might be uncomfortable for some," said coach Erik Spoelstra. "But I think we're getting accustomed to that world."
James was MVP-like in that stretch. He followed up a 45-point, 15-rebound classic on Thursday with a tamer performance Saturday, but impactful nonetheless. Locked in a tight game that was up for grabs in the fourth quarter, and after being a facilitator until then, James dropped a three-pointer from Fort Lauderdale and Miami took over for good. His 31 points and 12 rebounds doomed a Celtics' team that had no answer for him all series. For the post-season James is averaging 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, five assists and two steals. He played all but the final seconds of Game 7, following a 48-minute Game 6, and is checking in at an exhausting 42 minutes a night in the postseason.
"He's playing at a historic level in these playoffs," Spoelstra said. "We needed every single bit of it. He's pushing himself beyond his limits and he's pushing the rest of the team as well."
But the reassuring news for the Heat came in the form of a surprise and an old friend. The surprise was Bosh and his outside shooting, especially from deep. The old friend was defense, the lockdown kind that limited Boston to nine points in the final 10 minutes and eventually choked the last gasp from the proud Celtics, who were on empty.
Bosh was a thoroughly welcomed sight, especially for James, who's had to do it all in his absence. Bosh came off the bench again in Game 7, and at this point, coach Erik Spoelstra may keep him a sixth man in the Finals. Bosh was fresh enough to drill the Celtics with three shots from three-point range, daggers that broke the game open. Bosh hadn't made that many deep shots in a game all season, but now, Miami has another dimension from a player feared lost for the summer after collapsing one game into the East semifinals.
"I just wanted to get out there as soon as possible and contribute to the team," he said. "That's all I kept thinking about from the moment I went out against Indiana. It was very deflating at first. That was the biggest challenge I ever had in my life."
Bosh had 19 points with eight rebounds and gave balance to a team that, until Saturday, was mostly pulled by Wade and James to a larger extent. Finally, it was the Big Three that Miami envisioned would make the post-season run a whole lot easier, and yet, going seven games with the Celtics could serve as a blessing in disguise.
"It took an amazing effort to beat Boston," said Shane Battier, "and therefore, it's not going to surprise us playing against the Thunder."
It's all falling in place at the right time for the Heat: Bosh's health, James' aggressive nature, Wade cleaning up sloppy first halves with splendid seconds. Miami needs all three to be healthy and at a high level, or else. With a sprinkling of help from the reserves, the Heat may make this interesting and not just a clash between the MVP (James) and the runner-up (Kevin Durant). They lost the title last summer when they couldn't hold a 2-1 lead and James turned to dust in the fourth quarters. Now we get to see what lessons were learned and if they can finally accomplish what they were assembled to do.
"It's been a long 12 months," Wade said. "You play and you try to get back to this moment again, so you can put yourself in that position again to succeed. That's all you can ask for."
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