Heat president Pat Riley on Thursday night: "Winning at winning time is what it's all about."
CHICAGO -- The one moment of uncertainty -- likely the only time Pat Riley truly came close to fearing that the greatest free agency haul in NBA history could fall to pieces -- played out on the sixth floor of the Ritz Carlton hotel on July 2 in downtown Cleveland.
The poker face was somewhat pale.
That confidence was cracking just a bit.
The reality that there was even a slight chance things could turn into ruins was beginning to take shape.
Riley, the Miami Heat president, had just emerged from his free-agency meeting with LeBron James an hour earlier and had retreated back to the hotel with owner Micky Arison, Alonzo Mourning and a few other members of the front-office staff.
I approached Riley near the elevators that afternoon and asked him what he thought about Dwyane Wade taking a second recruiting visit with his hometown Chicago Bulls later that day. I also asked if he had heard that James' camp had reportedly requested more information from the New York Knicks.
Of course, Riley was aware of both situations.
“There's a lot going on right now, but we feel good about what we've presented,” Riley said that afternoon in Cleveland. He then summed up our conversation with the five words that essentially would become his mantra for the next 11 months.
“Let this all play out,” Riley said.
Fast forward to Thursday night, after James, Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat finished off an improbable comeback to eliminate the Chicago Bulls in five games and advanced to a rematch with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
Riley entered the hallway outside the Heat's locker room in the United Center relieved after enduring a season filled with scrutiny, controversy and criticism for everything from their celebration in July after the free-agency coup to the way the Heat fell apart in November, came back together midseason, gradually improved, then ultimately peaked in these playoffs.
Riley hasn't had much to say to the media throughout the season. But when I reminded him of our conversation in that downtown Cleveland hotel and the lasting message he left in July, it resonated.
So far, this season has played out just as Riley had planned, with the Heat now back in the NBA Finals for the first time since they defeated the Mavericks in 2006. Miami has one more hurdle ahead to reach the heights Riley envisioned when he gutted the team's roster, cleared the maximum amount of salary cap space last summer, pushed the franchise's future into the middle of the craps table and gambled that James, Wade and Bosh would deliver on their dreams of coming together to form a potential dynasty.
“Just let it play out,” Riley said late Thursday night, playfully picking up from a conversation we had almost a year ago. “No matter what happens, no matter what was said, no matter how we needed to do it, it was all about, 'Let's just get through the season.' And that's what this team did. I guess we just had to stay one step ahead of the posse.”
It was actually a perfect analogy from Riley, considering the only thing that stands in the way of a championship is a Mavericks team out to avenge one of the biggest collapses in NBA Finals history after blowing a 2-0 series lead by losing the next four games to Miami.
With Game 1 of the best-of-seven series set for Tuesday in Miami, there's plenty of time over the weekend to break down the matchups and numerous storylines in what should be an entertaining and lengthy showdown.
“There is a history there,” Riley said of facing the Mavericks. “We're just happy to be back in the Finals.”
For now, Riley and the Heat can -- or at least should -- take a moment or two to exhale and reflect before they regroup for the start of the series.
Don't doubt it for one second. The Heat had to get at least this far in order to justify the bold moves they made during their near-$400 million free agency makeover. And it was only in this series against the Bulls that Riley and Arison began to see anything close to the full return on their offseason investment.
James, Wade and Bosh have been there all season. But this team only recently became close to whole when Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller started to play major roles in the Game 2 victory in Chicago after missing significant time during the season to recover from foot and thumb surgeries, respectively.
“Winning at winning time is what it's all about,” Riley said of the Heat overcoming a 12-point deficit with less than four minutes to play to beat the Bulls on Thursday. “We played the type of game we had to play to get there. We had two or three great players that had no fear.”
Riley was referring to Wade, James and Bosh, who combined to score all 26 of the Heat's points in the fourth quarter to put away the Bulls. It was essentially a continuation of how Miami rallied in Game 4 to win in overtime on Tuesday after that same "big three" scored all 16 of Miami's points in the extra period.
James, Wade and Bosh are enough to put Miami in position to compete for a championship. But it's the just-in-the-nick-of-time emergence of Haslem and Miller that elevates the bar from simply being able to contend for a title to actually expecting to win it all.
“There are no guarantees,” Riley said of the Heat, who are 12-3 in the postseason. “You never know you're going to win it until you actually win it. I'm not surprised that this team has come as far as it's come. I've coached teams that have talent that takes it a long way. But every one of the guys we have has had a moment in these playoffs where they've really helped us.”
Riley acknowledged the Heat have come a long way over the course of the season. And each step of the way, they've exorcized one demon or another.
Beating Philadelphia in the first round gave the Heat their first playoff series victory since they defeated Dallas to win it all in 2006.
Knocking out Boston in the conference semifinals allowed James and Wade to finally get past the same Celtics who ended their seasons the previous year in Cleveland and Miami.
Wade, James and Bosh have said that their individual failures to overcome Boston was among the motivating factors that brought them together in Miami.
And in vanquishing the Bulls, the Heat beat the team with the league's best record, top defense, coach of the year in Tom Thibodeau as well as the MVP in Derrick Rose.
Gone in five. Gone in five. Gone in five.
“We look forward to a fun couple of weeks now with a group of guys who are very deserving,” Arison said Thursday. “The thing about this is, we knew when this all came together that we'd have a chance to really win big. We didn't know if we were going to actually win it. But we'd have a chance.”
Arison said that hasn't been the feeling around the franchise the past few years.
Since 2006, the Heat have been eliminated in the first round three of the last four seasons. The one season they didn't make the playoffs resulted in the team's tying the franchise record with a 15-67 finish in 2007-08.
That represented rock bottom for Riley, who retired from coaching after that season to work solely in the front office.
Now, the Heat are in position to finish back at the top of the league.
Arison had one request of some national media members as he left the United Center on Thursday.
“Please pick Dallas,” Arison wisecracked, insinuating there might not be any room for critics to now congregate on the Heat's bandwagon.
For Riley, the message Thursday night was the same as it was before the season started.
“Let this team be what it will or won't be,” Riley said.
Plenty of people have had their say along the way about the Miami Heat.
But it looks like Riley will get his wish.
The team he put together is about to have the final word.
“All we did was provide the platform for an opportunity like this to take place,” Riley said. “It's part of the vision we all had from the beginning.”