MIAMI —Three days ago, the chatter surrounding the Miami Heat was whether the Big Three should be broken up and whether coach Erik Spoelstra’s job was in jeopardy.
Now, after two victories, including 101-88 over the Boston Celtics in Saturday’s pressure-packed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the team that was nearly buried is returning to the NBA Finals.
In the most important game in this franchise’s history not played in the NBA Finals, the Heat closed with a 20-6 run to advance to the finals for the second time in the two seasons of the Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh era.
“We decided to come together and play together for a reason,” Wade said of the Big Three. “Tonight, we wanted to do this for our team and do this for our family and do this for our city.”
James, Wade and Bosh scored all of Miami’s 28 fourth-quarter points and the final 31 of the game for the Heat.
The Heat will meet the Oklahoma City Thunder in the finals starting Tuesday in Oklahoma City.
The Heat and Thunder split their two games during the regular season. The Thunder won 103-87 at home, and the Heat prevailed 98-93 in Miami.
The Thunder has been resting since eliminating San Antonio in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Wednesday.
“We got a lot more work to do,” Wade said.
Game 7 completed the passing of the torch from this era’s original Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Miami’s version of Wade, James and Bosh.
Pierce, Garnett and Allen have been together five years, won one title (2008) and played in three conference finals. Although Pierce remains under contract, Allen and Garnett are free agents. Allen is sure to leave, with Garnett a possibility to return.
“Boston for two years has been the single team that pushed us and bended us to where he had to improve,” Spoelstra said. “They forced us to redefine ourselves.”
James led the Heat with 31 points and 12 rebounds. James was not as dominant as he was in Miami’s Game 6 victory in Boston, when he scored 45 points, but with his jump shot not falling with consistency, he was attacking the basket. That helped him get to the line 17 times, making 12.
James, who shot 9-of-21, had the biggest basket of the game, a three-pointer with 5:44 to play that gave the Heat a 91-84 lead and started the celebrating at raucous AmericanAirlines Arena.
The basket capped a 10-2 Heat run that broke open a quarter that had seven of the game’s 20 lead changes.
“He was absolutely brilliant this season,” Spoelstra said. “We all know he’s playing at a historic moment.”
James received a lot more help than he did in Game 6, mainly from Bosh and Wade.
Bosh came off the bench to score 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including three three-pointers. Bosh had 10 three-pointers this regular season and four in his first 40 playoff games.
Bosh missed nine playoff games, including the first four of the conference finals, with an abdominal strain.
“You never know what life throws you,” Bosh said. “It means so much to me just to come back.”
Wade scored 23 points, including a floater that gave the Heat a nine-point lead with 3:23 remaining.
Rajon Rondo led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, his third triple-double of the 2012 playoffs and ninth of his career in the post-season.
“We had some great looks, we just didn’t knock them down,” Rondo said about the final 8 1/2 minutes.
“They got to the loose balls, offensive rebounds and made great plays.
“We let it slip away.”
Paul Pierce had 19 points and Brandon Bass scored 16, all but two in the first half.
“I just thought we had nothing left,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I was trying to push everybody we had.
“Overall, I don’t know if I ever had a group like this. They did everything I asked them to do and they came up short.”
Miami took a lot of heat after coming up short in its first trip to the finals with the Big Three, losing to Dallas last season in six games. The most scrutinized team in the history of team sports knows just returning to the league’s biggest stage will not quiet those critics.
“We’ve been through a lot in two years,” Spoelstra said. “We talk about it all the time that the trials and the adversity, the tribulations we’ve been through, have strengthened us and strengthened our core, built our character, steeled us. And we’ll need it.
“There is no question we’ll need it in the next round.”
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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