MIAMI (AP) — A year ago, with an easier path, the Miami Heat fell short of their championship goal.
This time, things seemed much tougher to the Heat — which made the reward only that much sweeter.
The Heat are the NBA champions, after taking an unlikely, uneasy road to the top of the pro basketball world. They were down against Indiana in the second round, down and facing elimination against Boston in the Eastern Conference title series, down yet again against Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals. And strange as this would seem, when the Heat looked most vulnerable, it turned out they were at their best.
Down 2-1 to Indiana, the Heat won three straight. Down 3-2 to Boston, they won two straight. Down 1-0 to the Thunder, they swept the last four games.
"You come together," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You can either go the other way or come closer together, and you start to build some toughness. Last year's pain that we went through, even for the new guys, they inherited that pain. We told them that. And you go through those experiences together, and you're able to survive it, it's a great teacher and motivator, and I think that helped us in all the tough times this year."
Miami was rolling to the title a year ago, going 12-3 in the East playoffs and playing the role of favorite heading into the finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat won Game 1, were cruising to a win late in Game 2, and then the wheels came off — not only did Miami drop that second game, that started a stretch of four losses in five games to cost them the championship.
After that, this year was championship or bust.
They didn't bust.
"Last year it wasn't as hard and we lost the championship," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "But we knew it was going to be hard to become champions."
There came a point this season when the Heat just knew they were built to last. Wade was dogged by injuries at times in the regular season, and the team never had more than even a three-game slide. In the playoffs, Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 against Indiana. The Heat lost Games 2 and 3 without him and trailed in Game 4 before rallying to pull out that series. And against Boston, Miami was in serious trouble, facing a win-or-else Game 6 on the road.
LeBron James had 45 points and 15 rebounds that night. The Heat won the game, won the next one to close out the Celtics and then took four of five against the Thunder. James got his long-awaited ring with a Finals MVP performance, Wade and Udonis Haslem got their second championships, and every other player on the Heat roster got to enjoy celebrating with the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time.
"The Celtics series, man, that was the most challenging series that I've ever played in — and I've played against the Detroit Pistons," Wade said. "It was the very thing we dealt with last year. We had to deal with being again under the microscope against the Boston Celtics, and they got us ready. Our backs were against the wall many times. But I knew, when we went into Boston and won Game 6, at that point right there I knew we could be world champions."
He was right.
James, Wade, Bosh and Mario Chalmers exited together with 3:01 left to play Thursday night, Miami by that point well on the way to a title-clinching 121-106 victory over the Thunder. It was much different from Wade's first title, the one in Dallas where he watched Jason Terry's 3-pointer to tie the game bounce off the rim and into his hands as the clock ran out.
Wade and James had a chat before Game 5, just silly talk about how they would envision the perfect finish. Wade said he wanted to be on the court for the clincher. James said he would rather be on the bench and celebrating by that point. James' vision was the way it turned out.
For the first time in a while, at least a few minutes seemed easy.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done as a basketball player, since I picked up a basketball when I was 9 years old," James said, referring to Miami's postseason run. "It's the hardest thing I ever done. It's not easy at all. You just put a lot of hard work into it, and hopefully one day you hope that it pays off for you. You know, this was a testament to that. I gave it my all, and it paid off."
In the end, Wade didn't mind getting a three-minute head start on the offseason, either.
"We won and we're world champions," Wade said. "One thing about this team, we saved our best for last."
Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds