The Miami Heat staged another fourth quarter comeback in Chicago on Thursday night, beating the Bulls 83-80 to win the Eastern Conference Finals in five games.
First, the Bulls. They are obviously a young team; Rose is 22, Gibson is 25, Deng, Noah and Brewer are all 26. They’ll clearly be back here. Chicago, for all its vaunted depth, was simply out-played on both ends of the court in what was deemed a “physical” series despite being sloppier than anything else (each team had at least 10 turnovers in every game). Miami, for all the talk of its shallow bench, hung around in every game in this series (after the first one, a blowout loss) just long enough for their stars and key supporting players to overwhelm Chicago down the stretch. Chicago led by 12 points with three minutes to go; once again, Miami pulled off a furious finish to win a game.
Miami out-dueled Chicago in a matchup we’re likely to see repeated in the near future. Assuming Miami keeps their superstar core together for at least a few seasons, and assuming there are no major, career-ending injuries to either team’s key cogs, these teams are going to stand astride the Eastern Conference for a while. And despite the sloppiness, that was a very entertaining series, so fans will be glad to see further matchups.
Now: the Finals. Let me say first that there was really no other justifiable way for this season to end. Miami was in a lose-lose situation after signing Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh last summer. If they lost at any point before the Finals (and maybe even if they lose in the Finals), they’re chokers, disappointments, a wasted experiment, proof it didn’t work out, etc. If they win anything — say, their conference — it’s just what was supposed to happen. (Let’s forget for a second that Chicago was the favorite going into the postseason, because plenty of people thought Miami still couldn’t handle Boston.) They were never the team that was going to defy expectations, only meet the begrudging predictions of a dispirited sports populace or fail en route. (Hey, remember when some people said the Heat were done after two games? Good times.)
The hatred directed at Miami that seemed so visceral last summer and last fall seems to have dissipated, has it not? The ire directed at LeBron James for his stunningly stupid “Decision,” and at the Heat for being the new bandwagon hotness, seems to have faded from view for that most obvious of reasons: the NBA season is a grueling slog, and most fans lost interest in actively complaining about one team (that, for much of the regular season, was pretty good but nothing spectacular). Early on, the Heat revealed themselves as a defensive-minded team with a shallow bench; in other words, they were boring. People definitely weren’t cheering for them, but they had gotten over despising them.
Now that Miami is in the Finals, that’s about to change. The spotlight is entirely on them, much like it was the rest of the season, only people are definitely watching and have a strong rooting interest. For most fans, this means cheering against the Heat, cheering against LeBron and Wade, cheering against the superstars and cheering for their humbling defeat. For a lot of fans, though, this means it’s time to hop on the bandwagon, claiming that a summer spent in Fort Lauderdale once means they are lifelong Heat fans, obviously, but please help me get the sticker off of my LeBron jersey, would you? For the rest of us — the small, few devoted, the ones who paid attention in between Finals berths, the ones who slogged through the 2007-2008 season and hoped to get Rose and cheered for Wade and Beasley and who have always had a soft spot for Joel Anthony — it’s comforting to know this demonization of our favorite team has had a purpose. It might still feel like we’ve rented another team for a few years, but they’re still the Heat, our Heat, and we get to root for them in June once again.
As for Miami-Dallas, much of the attention will be focused on the rematch angle. I get that. The 2006 Finals marked the only prior time each of the two teams made the championship series, and it was a particularly memorable one (at least much more memorable than several of the other recent Finals matchups, which serves my pet theory that the Finals and Super Bowl cannot be good in the same year, so if the Super Bowl is exciting, the Finals will be somewhat or entirely dull). The rematch won’t really play out on the court, though: Only two players from each squad remain on the roster (Wade and Udonis Haslem in Miami, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry in Dallas). The coaches and supporting players have entirely changed. Mark Cuban and Pat Riley are still there, of course, outsized presences looming over the proceedings. Expect to hear a lot about the officiating, especially if the refs hand Dirk Nowitzki another 24 trips to the free throw line.
The real matchup will be between Nowitzki, unstoppable in these playoffs, and LeBron, who has transformed into a magnificent closer this spring. Kidd will try to mark Wade, and Bosh will try to embarrass Tyson Chandler the way he outplayed Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Both teams are good defenders that can explode offensively. Both teams have defeated the reigning conference champs (exposing them to be aged and decrepit) and both teams just ousted the young, fresh hotness (showing their age and experience). Interestingly, both teams have shined this postseason with late-game comebacks. If the game is close in the fourth, it will be great to see which team is truly clutch and which one was just feasting upon weaker opponents. Fingers crossed, but it should be a great series.