Editor's note: Throughout the 2012-13 NBA season we'll be asking our colleagues at ESPN Los Angeles to weigh in on the progress of the Heat's quest for back-to-back titles. This week, Dave McMenamin shares what it's like for a team attempting to repeat.
As hard as it was for the Los Angeles Lakers to beat the Boston Celtics in an epic seven-game series to secure a repeat championship in 2010, the entire season leading up to that point was even harder.
"We have to make sure that we continue to move forward and understand that if we want to repeat as champions, it's not going to be easy," Kobe Bryant said sometime in the middle of that year, after the Lakers had blown a road game against the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. "You got to bring it."
That’s really what it comes down to. After experiencing the thrill of performing on basketball’s biggest stage, a team hoping to make that trip again has to almost trick itself to get up for the daily challenges that an NBA season brings from October through April to set itself up for success from April through June.
If the Miami Heat can bring home back-to-back titles, that will mark a third straight trip to the round that determines the ring -- just like that '10 Lakers team.
The arcs of both teams already look quite similar. L.A. made it to the NBA Finals in 2008 thanks to the infusion of new talent in Pau Gasol, but lost to the Celtics because they weren’t ready yet. That was the 2010-11 season for Miami in a nutshell, when the Heat made it to the Finals thanks to the arrival of LeBron James and Chris Bosh, but couldn’t seal the deal against the Dallas Mavericks because they hadn’t fully grown as a team.
The 2008-09 season belonged to the Lakers as they not only dominated the regular season, but marched through the playoffs hell-bent on taking the title, which they did in five games against the Orlando Magic. Same script, different season for Miami last season, when the Heat seemed destined to win it all from the moment the lockout was lifted.
Then came 2009-10, the culmination for that Lakers team that didn’t go nearly as smoothly as the Larry O’Brien trophy now resting in Jeanie Buss’ office would suggest.
"I think as a team we just have to realize everybody wants to beat us," Lamar Odom said after that same soul-searching Charlotte game. "They really want to beat us."
The Heat had a fair dose of that already when their Big Three first came together and crowds came out in droves at road arenas to see them fail. But it becomes more than the fans. Opposing teams that have championship aspirations themselves use games against you as measuring sticks. Then there are the lottery-bound teams looking to make their season with one win.
When a defending champion has its eyes on June, it's easy to lose focus in those Tuesday night games in February. It’s not getting better in the moment and it’s not getting better for the future.
“All season, it's been about repeating as champions and as the season has shortened, it doesn't seem like we've kept an ability to find a purpose for 'today,'" Derek Fisher said as the playoffs approached in 2009-10.
Even after the Lakers started to figure out how to take care of the day at hand, the only thing that guaranteed them the necessary amount of tomorrows in the postseason to win it all was Bryant secretly getting his knee drained three times throughout the course of those playoffs and Andrew Bynum dragging his bum leg (which would be operated on after the season) up and down the court for 23 straight games without missing a contest.
Meaning that as hard as the regular season is for an aspiring repeat champion, the search for 16 wins in the postseason is even harder.
"If you had to pick a team who had the most to lose and had the most to prove, who would it be?" Odom asked at one point in 2009-10. "Most to lose, most to prove, at the same time ... That's us."
And that’s the conundrum the Heat now have to learn to live with.