They took every punch.
They made no excuses.
Nearing the end of a long road trip and playing the second game of a back-to-back against a heated rival missing its leader, Miami trailed by 13 points with eight minutes remaining in the game.
The writing was on the wall for the Heat to mail it in. Every excuse was at their disposal.
After all, Jeff Green was playing the game of his life, and 22 straight wins would still be good for second-best all-time.
Except this team doesn't use excuses anymore. Gone is the "woe is us" script that seems so out-of-character now.
Instead, the champion Miami Heat are thriving under the brightest lights on the biggest stages.
True, it was only Boston in March, but this was an inspired Celtics effort that—to use LeBron James' phrasing—only a team with "championship DNA" brings and, likewise, can snuff out.
If you woke up from a long winter's nap and tuned in to watch this game, you would have sworn it was the playoffs. The game had it all: the loud partisan crowd, the extra cameras, the inspired play and the high stakes.
For the Heat, it was their 22-game winning streak. For Boston, it was an aging team clinging to the mental edge it seemed to enjoy whenever these teams met in TD Garden.
That edge is dulling.
LeBron James made sure of that with what was an epic performance—even for him.
This was a time-capsule game for James:
Highlight-reel detonation over Jason Terry?
Double-digit comeback on the road against a fierce rival?
Clutch fourth quarter and game-winning bucket?
What about a stat line (37 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, two steals and two blocks) that has only been duplicated four times (regular season or playoffs) since 1985?
Jason Terry is still trending 15 hours after THE dunk. Yikes.3/19/2013, 7:21:53 PM
Oh, and it was his team's 23rd consecutive victory, a run that did not seem possible two seasons ago.
We don't win a game like this our first year [2010-11]. No matter if we're up 17 or down 17, we're confident. That's a big difference when you're out there playing. This is a team that's familiar with each other, that's comfortable playing together, comfortable talking to each other and making each other better.
What a difference two years has made for the Miami Heat.
Back in Spring 2011, the team was crumbling in the biggest moments against the best teams on a nightly basis.
For Heat haters, it was the best reality show on TV.
Then it was back home for a Chicago Bulls team led by 2011 MVP Derrick Rose for a Sunday matinee and more last-second failure; another broken-play-turned-hero-ball incident thwarted the Heat as they fell again, 87-86.
And who could forget CryGate?
A March 8, 2011 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers gave the Miami Heat their fifth straight loss in a game that saw James and Wade combine for 69 points on 26-41 shooting.
They were in a free-fall. A good team with two alpha dogs that would never become a true unit.
Ultimately, it was a win against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers on March 10 that began Miami's 15-3 stretch to end the regular season with a 58-24 record.
They took a 2-1 lead against the Dallas Mavericks, restoring their home-court advantage and bouncing back after squandering a 15-point lead with seven minutes remaining in Game 2.
They held a nine-point advantage with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter of their Game 4 loss in Dallas.
They led late in pivotal Game 5 as well, before a 17-4 Mavericks run ended the game and swung the series for good.
In the end, the 2011 NBA Finals was just another set of glaring examples of how the Heat couldn't close games and couldn't overcome quality competition.
That series also added more postseason demons to LeBron James' playoff resume, after he scored just eight points in Game 4 and avoided the paint like the plague virtually all series, shooting just a total of 28 free throws.
James was a great player, yes, but he just didn't have "it."
All that changed last season, as the Heat became the first team to overcome series deficits in the final three rounds to win the NBA title. They were led by James, who turned in epic performances almost nightly for two straight months.
When it was all said and done, James was deemed not only to have "it," but a couple of trophies as well.
They went through the fire, as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likes to say, and they came out a hardened and cohesive unit.
Moreover, James proved to himself and his critics alike that he could lead and shine in the game's biggest moments.
Now, not only is he playing at an all-time-great level, but his teammates are joining him, as they continue their assault on the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' record of 33 consecutive victories.
This type of sustained success is what elicited such a passionate reaction from both fans and detractors when this team formed in July 2010.
The potential of this team appeared boundless. But for every individual who craved to witness something special, it seemed there were two more who wanted to see them flame out and fail.
It appears that time has come and gone, and fans of basketball played at the highest level are better for it.
The Miami Heat are, too.
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