Year-by-Year: 2011-12

Mission accomplished.

Years from now, when people that haven’t even been born in 2012 are being drafted into the league, the Miami HEAT’s 2011-12 NBA Championship will be remembered as the year the team delivered on the promise of the 2010 offseason, when the core of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was earned, and that realization of promise can never be stripped away.

Now, things will change. It’s hardly gravy from here on out, but there’s a new foundation in place. Throughout league history, there are dozens of examples of teams improving year after year, learning from failures, building off the losses that sent everyone home early for the summer. A select few of those squads went into their offseasons with a win, with nothing to dwell on and nothing lurking in the back of their minds. Whether they missed that three in the third quarter of Game 4 or not, they were part of ultimate victory. They tasted the best the sport has to offer, the feeling of all internal doubt washing away in a spray of champagne, and they’ll have that forever.

They’ll never again be asked if they can do it. They’ll only be asked if they can do it again. Each question, each expression of public doubt, will carry an inherent admission of prior success.

Not that it matters all too much. This was about the team, and the road that team traveled.

It wasn’t easy.

When the season was supposed to start, it didn’t. The league was in lockout mode, which continued through Thanksgiving. By the time games were scheduled to begin on Christmas Day, there was only enough time for a contracted two-week training camp and free-agency period that would set the tone for the rest of the year. Full practices became a thing of memory – Miami’s total for the regular season hovered somewhere in the 15-18 range – as each team endured a back-to-back-to-back and four-to-five games a week.

After an offseason full of anguish over a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals and the progressive cutting of 16 games from the schedule, the sudden rush of activity moved everyone on from what happened before. There was little time to breathe and sleep, much less prepare, so while the HEAT care far more about their own play than specific results during most regular seasons – the luxury of a club that knows it has the talent to get a top seed in the playoffs – this season took that to another degree.

Consecutive losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets at the tail end of a long road trip in January didn’t matter any more than did the convincing victories over the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers that immediately followed. The regular season had its typical ups and downs, complimented by the usual fluctuations between either extreme of outside perception, but there was never time to dwell. At times, the HEAT would play better in a loss one night than in a double-digit win the next, and as long as the team was on pace for the playoffs, Erik Spoelstra kept his team building.

The tools weren’t always there to build with, however. After adding Shane Battier and drafting Norris Cole, Pat Riley said he envisioned the team he put together having one of the most versatile lineups in the league, able to play small or big but always with the floor well-spaced with shooters. Problem was, Mike Miller missed about a third of the season with injury and Dwyane Wade only played 49 of the 66 games. Even with Mario Chalmers shooting better than ever, Battier struggled to find his stroke early on and the team lacked ample opportunity for lineup experimentation.

That’s why, coupled with a Chris Bosh injury early in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, the HEAT wound up using seven different starting lineups in the postseason. The team had a concept of its own identity, but health rarely allowed for those ideas to be realized.

But once those ideas did come to fruition, everything changed.

We’re speeding through the regular season here because it was a blur for all involved. By April, if you asked a player about something that happened in another game, they would have trouble pinpointing exactly what you were talking about. Statistics were muddied by all the schedule quirks and miniscule sample sizes, so once it became playoff time, much of what came before was tossed out the window. Miami won 46 games, James won Most Valuable Player after one of the most brilliantly efficient regular seasons the league had ever seen, and then the team entered its first-round series against the New York Knicks with a clean slate.

Having dealt with health issues of their own, the Knicks’ offense was one of the most isolation-heavy attacks in the previous decade. If it wasn’t a high pick-and-roll for Tyson Chandler, it was a dribble-heavy possession for Amar’e Stoudemire or Carmelo Anthony. This played right into Miami’s scheme, which excelled at stopping isolations and pick-and-rolls and had struggled the most throughout the year against teams that moved the ball swiftly and accurately. Erik Spoelstra played his hand early, using both Battier and James to front Anthony as far out as the three-point line, taking away New York’s most simple and comfortable passes, and the Knicks never responded. Miami dropped Game 4 on the road on a last-second possession, but the percentages were always in the HEAT’s favor simply because of the way each team approached the game.

Then came the Indiana Pacers with their bench and their size, and against Game 1 paced the rest of the series, with Bosh straining his oblique. After Roy Hibbert thrashed the HEAT in the middle during a Game 3 rout – despite one of Chalmers’ best performances – and Wade appeared to be injured (it was later revealed he had his knee drained the morning of the contest) in shooting 2-of-13, Miami reached its lowest point of the season. With the Chicago Bulls already eliminated after a Derrick Rose injury, many had the HEAT following close behind.

During those two days off in Indianapolis, the series, and the season, shifted.

Rather than trying to match the size of the Pacers, Spoelstra committed his team fully to versatility, starting James at power forward, a move enabled by the presence of Battier – fronting the pass just as he did with Anthony – and his ability to make life difficult for David West. With shooters on the floor at all times and Indiana’s big men being pulled out of the paint, James had plenty of space to operate in posting 40 points and 18 rebounds while simultaneously helping Wade (30 points) get back on track with some early passes. The HEAT won the next two games by a combined 44 points and earned the right to face the resurgent Boston Celtics, fresh off a seven-game series with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Again without Bosh for much of the series – he returned in limited minutes in Game 5 – the HEAT struggled at times with the combination of Rajon Rondo (44 points in Game 2) and Kevin Garnett (24 points in Game 3). Miami took two at home, then Boston took the next pair, but it was after the HEAT’s 98-79 Game 5 loss at home that the season was once again on the brink.

Then LeBron James happened.

Game 6 of Miami-Boston, in Boston with that hostile crowd, will be one talked about for years and years. James had improved both his shooting and post-game again that season, and Game 6 was the perfect reflection of those efforts. He earned deep post position, up-faking his defenders and finishing over the top. He pulled up off the dribble. He shot on the catch after making a hard cut. He hit tough threes and fading bankers. James was a fast-acting poison to Boston’s hopes, burying his opponent with 45 points in just over three quarters.

Game 7 was excellent in its own rights, close until a late run from the HEAT put things away, but James had already submitted his transcendent performance. After that, there little logic to any doubts about James’ playoff performances. He shouldered the load, and delivered it to Oklahoma City for the NBA Finals.

Miami’s defense faltered despite a fast start in the first matchup against the Thunder, but following that loss the HEAT always appeared to be following a very precise strategy: keep shooters on the floor, move the ball, move off the ball, run the floor and create defensive chaos. It was a strategy they had built up to for two years, and it produced dividends throughout the series, whether it was Battier getting open on the wing off a pick-and-roll or James finding a cutting Wade after getting doubled in the post. As Bosh got healthier, the defense coalesced, and the Thunder needed brilliant performances from Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant – with James Harden struggling throughout – to stay close in the fourth quarter.

Drama came in Game 4 when James experienced leg cramps, which didn’t prevent him from hitting a go-ahead three with less than three minutes to play. But that game was soon forgotten as the party began in Game 5 with Mike Miller, for whom things never seemed to get on track in Miami, hitting 7-of-8 from distance.

And so the HEAT were champions, one of the few teams since the 1990’s to win a title relying not on hulking men in the pivot but on the versatility of its lineups, playing with overwhelming speed and awareness. It may have officially ushered in a new era of the NBA or it may not have – a crop of new, great centers will come along some day – but in the context of the HEAT, the journey to the title was the near-perfect realization of a vision, executed with hard work, grace and dedication.

The HEAT became champions, and they’ll always have that.