The Miami Heat clinched their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals Monday night by knocking off an excellent Indiana Pacers squad in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. And even though just about everyone expected LeBron James and Co. to make it as far as they have, there were still plenty of unforeseeable twists and turns in the Heat's season-long journey thus far.
From a ho-hum start that raised doubts about Miami's fitness to a breathtaking month of February by James, the regular season featured a ton of memorable action. Oh, and I think there might have been some kind of streak in there somewhere, too.
The postseason has been a whole different kind of ride, though, as the Heat have found themselves embattled in a number of ultra-physical contests. Having survived everything the East had to throw at them, the Heat now sit on the doorstep of the Finals.
Here's a look back at how they got here.
The Heat Play It Cool
Miami played through the first few weeks of the season on cruise control. The Heat rebounded poorly, allowed inferior opponents to hang around and generally played without any sort of urgency. Still, by the time January had ended, Miami had a 29-13 record and still rated among the league's very best offensive teams.
But losses to the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers during those early months gave rise to the belief that the Heat were getting a little too secure in their ability to eventually flip the proverbial switch later in the year.
After losing to the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 1, Miami quieted any doubts about its potential.
A Month for the Ages
James played at a ridiculously high level throughout the month of February. The statistics are hard to comprehend individually, but taken together, they show that LBJ may have played the best individual month of any player in NBA history.
.@KingJames completes an INCREDIBLE month of February. 29.7 PPG, 7.8 APG, 7.5 RPG, 64% FG as the Heat went 12-1.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 27, 2013
For starters, he shot 64 percent from the field on 217 attempts. As you can see from his shot chart, there was almost no spot on the floor from which James wasn't absolutely deadly.
Naturally, the rest of the Heat benefited from James' insane efficiency. As a unit, Miami posted an offensive rating of 116.5 for the month. For reference, the Heat's rating of 110.3 led the league on the year.
Dwyane Wade, currently the subject of criticism for his spotty playoff performances, came right along with James in the Heat's team-wide surge.
LBJ= 37.33. Wade= 28.30. RT @tarcamwat: What r LBJ's and Wade's PERs in February?— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) February 27, 2013
The Heat won 12 games in a row to close out the month after dropping that Feb. 1 contest to the Pacers, and James saved his best for last. In defeating the Sacramento Kings in double overtime, LBJ piled up 11 points and three assists in the decisive final stanza.
After finishing such an incredible individual month, King James was on pace to set a remarkable record.
James cooled off down the stretch, ultimately finishing with a PER of 31.67 that "only" tied (with his own 2008-09 season) for fourth place on the all-time list. But his scorching February performance put the Heat on course to do something else truly remarkable as they closed out the regular season.
Miami Goes Streaking
Perhaps you heard at some point this past season: The Heat won a whole bunch of games in a row. Twenty-seven of them, to be exact.
After that fateful Feb. 1 loss to the Pacers, Miami didn't lose again until March 27 against the Chicago Bulls. There were plenty of close calls along the way, including one against James' former team that involved a 27-point comeback.
When the Bulls ended the streak, their physical play provided a glimpse of how teams would attack the Heat in the postseason. The game was chippy throughout, culminating in James taking out his frustration from a couple of rough plays by trying to knock Carlos Boozer off of his feet.
James couldn't quite displace the Bulls big man, and his frustration boiled over into his postgame comments:
Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say anything. I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich, in the first quarter, basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. And, you know, the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not basketball plays.
With the streak snapped, Miami would essentially cruise into the postseason.
I almost forgot: The Heat brought Chris Andersen aboard via a 10-day contract on Jan. 20. He signed another one on Jan. 30 and was then inked for the balance of the season.
Since joining the Heat, Andersen has provided remarkable energy and a solid interior presence that was lacking earlier in the year. Thanks partly to his presence, the Heat finished out the final four months of the 2012-13 season by winning 40 out of 44 games.
Breezing By the Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks offered little resistance to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, despite a confident prediction by Brandon Jennings that his team would take care of the defending champs in six games.
Wade summed up the Heat's dismissive feelings toward the Bucks in great interview during the series.
Four double-digit wins later, the Heat had advanced to the second round. It was that easy.
Let's Get Physical
True to form, the Bulls tried to get under Miami's skin by playing with some serious physicality in the second round of the playoffs. Chicago actually took Game 1 from the Heat behind 27 points from Nate Robinson, but from there, the Bulls lost their cool.
Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah were both ejected from Game 2 for voicing their frustrations with a handful of favorable calls.
In Game 3, James and Nazr Mohammed got tangled up, which led to the Bulls center shoving James right in front of the officials. Thanks to a slightly dramatic reaction by LBJ, Mohammed was tossed.
After that, the Bulls gave in to fatigue and a short bench. Miami pounced on its beleaguered opponents in Game 4, holding Chicago to just 65 points en route to a 3-1 series lead.
When the dust settled, the Heat had outscored the Bulls by a total of 73 points over the final four games in the series—all Miami wins.
A Worthy Foe
The Pacers had beaten the Heat in two out of the teams' three regular-season meetings, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that Indiana came into the Eastern Conference finals brimming with confidence. Roy Hibbert was a beast inside, the Pacers defense was solid and Paul George was up to the task of matching James shot for shot.
Game 1 featured a series of incredible highlights, including a monstrous three by George that sent the contest to overtime.
In the extra period, George and James exchanged big plays down to the wire, with LBJ coming up with the game-winner as time expired.
George and James kept the highlights coming in Game 2, as they traded posterizing slams and impossible threes.
The Pacers weren't bothered by the heartbreaking nature of their Game 1 loss, and they took Game 2 by a final score of 97-93. And in one of the series' most enduring moments, James and George exchanged a quick, respectful low five. For all of the physicality that would materialize later in the series, that gesture showed that a mutual respect was at the heart of this competition.
James went to work on the block in Game 3, punishing George and leading the Heat to a huge 114-96 victory in Indianapolis. And of course the Pacers responded by taking a heated Game 4 in which Wade played like a shell of his former self and James fouled out on a controversial offensive foul in the waning moments.
Game 5 featured the infamous attack on Tyler Hansbrough by Andersen. It's a little hard to understand why it happened, but here it is in all its strange glory.
With Andersen serving a suspension for his altercation, the Pacers took Game 6 with a massive 29-15 third-quarter surge. Indiana forced a seventh game with its 91-77 victory. Oh, and it probably didn't help the Heat that Bosh and Wade combined to shoot 4-of-19 from the field.
Hibbert and George combined for 52 points as Indiana crushed the Heat on the boards yet again. With two such evenly matched teams, a Game 7 felt appropriate.
But the final game of the Eastern Conference proved to be a mismatch. The Heat defended with a tenacity not seen in weeks. Wade attacked the basket; every Miami player went to work on the offensive boards; James was his typically brilliant self.
The Heat annihilated the Pacers by a final score of 99-76 to advance to their third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
So, the Heat are nearing the end of their remarkable journey.
Only the mighty San Antonio Spurs stand in the way of a second consecutive NBA title. Considering all of the incredible achievements and memorable moments of Miami's 2012-13 season, it stands to reason that there'll be a few more before we reach the last page of a storybook campaign.