It didn’t take long for the Miami Heat to go from hunter to hunted. After a blockbuster summer of NBA free agency in 2010, Miami turned into a heavyweight juggernaut seemingly overnight, but drew the loathing of basketball fans nationwide.

The team was able to retain free agent franchise guard Dwyane Wade, but its signing of two-time MVP forward LeBron James and All Star forward Chris Bosh created the most dynamic group of free agent signings in league history.

Months of speculation in 2010 over where James would play this season concluded last summer with a chest-thumping two-day frenzy that brewed fans’ anger. First, James announced his decision in an hour-long ESPN special, “The Decision,” followed by a championship celebration-like concert to introduce James and Bosh that seemed to laud the new Big Three’s success before they even practiced together.

When James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” he had no idea that he’d be bringing along a truckload of criticism as well. His departure from downtrodden Cleveland all but erased seven years of goodwill created by the popular player’s blood, sweat and tears. His arrival to the Cavaliers in 2003 singlehandedly turned the once lowly franchise into a money-making, 60-win-per-year machine. Airtime, merchandise sales and even an NBA Finals appearance jumpstarted Cleveland, which became the new Mecca of basketball in the Midwest behind the leadership of James.

“I understand a lot of the backlash that came at me going to Miami,” James told reporters after the Heat’s series-clinching game five victory over the Chicago Bulls on May 26. “But understand also, I did what was best for me, best for my family and best for me being a professional athlete.”

Miami’s season couldn’t have gotten off to a better beginning for “Heat Haters.” A 9-8 start fueled controversy about whether Miami was truly ready to contend for a title this season. The Heat answered with a 21-1 tear over their next 22 games to silence the critics. But despite their stretch of dominance, Miami found themselves back under fire when a 1-6 slump, highlighted by a five-game losing streak, in early March raised some serious questions.

James routinely came up short at the end of games and Wade and Bosh were nowhere to be found when contests got close down the stretch. Miami’s bench was failing to produce and head coach Eric Spoelstra looked like a man in over his head.

But just as they rebounded after their slow start, Miami bounced back from their season-high losing streak. Wade became more involved in the offense, while the team concentrated more on defense to close the year strong and finish at 58-24, good for second place in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat ripped through their first round opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers, winning the series 4-1. They took down the Boston Celtics, their season-long nemesis, in the second round with another 4-1 series win. All Miami had to do to reach the NBA Finals was defeat the Chicago Bulls, a team which was led by the NBA’s MVP, owned the league’s best record, and defeated Miami all three times they met during the regular season. No problem. Through defense and the revitalization of James, Miami handled Chicago in similar fashion to their previous opponents, earning another 4-1 series win to punch their tickets to the NBA’s biggest show.

After being buried by the critics, the Heat have risen from the dead to claim the title of Eastern Conference champions. With four more victories left to claim an NBA championship, Miami is set to face the Dallas Mavericks in what could be the first of many championship appearances for the new Big Three. Behind James, Wade and Bosh, the season didn’t go as expected. It was rocky and it was rough, but the Miami Heat are right where they want to be: in the NBA Finals.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO