Legacy grows for Miami's Big 3

MIAMI -- The walls in and around the locker rooms are already filled with photos of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with trophies and champagne bottles going back years now.

For this trio, another banner is on order, a fourth one for conference champs alongside the four division title banners, dwarfed by the two title banners already there.

Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Bill Sharman and John Havlicek. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

James, Wade and Bosh.

These are the names on some of the great dynasties of NBA history. The Heat are there, card-carrying members of the club. They'll be alongside these men in the Hall of Fame. When the NBA honors it's top 75 players of all time in 2022, their names will be there. In 10, 15 or 25 years they'll be honored with documentaries. When they are introduced to give speeches or to open exhibits or to be toasted at banquets, the achievement will be cited with applause.

For all that "not two, not three, not four, not five ..." talk that signified their arrival and simultaneously alienated much of the basketball-loving public four years ago, the Heat have planted their flag. They may have been guilty of hubris, but they were also right.

They have turned into a monster.

Now four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, just the fourth team in history to run that energy-sucking, mentally-devouring, chemistry-battering gantlet. They're a certified, verified, bona fide dynasty whether they bring home a three-peat or not.

This hasn't happened for 27 years, since the Celtics made their fourth straight Finals. Wade was 5 years old. Bosh was 4. James was 3. For them, this is once-in-a-lifetime stuff. For many people in their careers, even for athletes, they never truly know when they're at the peak, usually until it's in the past. For this accomplishment, though -- one the Heat accepted with wide open eyes -- they know their mortality.

"Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it's so humbling, man," James said as he advanced to his fifth Finals in the past eight seasons.

"You just feel like while you're in the moment hopefully, while you're playing the game, that you can make an impact enough to where you move on and people will start comparing you to ones that's in the game at the present time."

Whatever circumstances or conspiracy theories anyone wants to whip up, they've now done something that Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal have not done: They will compete in the Finals for a fourth consecutive year.

"We're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, resigned to the reality. "You have to tip your hats to them."

"We're in the LeBron James era," said Pacers forward David West. "I've thought about it, that maybe we're a little unlucky. You just have that perspective."

The Heat have won 14 of the 15 playoff series they've played in these past four years. They are 10-0 in closeout games on their home floor. They've won three Game 7s. They knocked out Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett three times. They knocked out the Chicago Bulls twice. They've won at least one road game in every single series, perhaps their most remarkable stat of all. And they have been a miserable roadblock for the Pacers, ending three straight promising seasons.

"It's bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals," Vogel said. "And it's bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row."

Back when the Heat got together for this season at a half-empty resort in the Bahamas for training camp in October they had a team dinner when they brought up the idea of the legacy they were trying to leave. Staying hungry, healthy and focused has undone plenty of title teams in the past and it threatened this team many times.

What followed was their toughest season, they won 12 fewer games than a year ago, which was quite the red flag. But they had the benefit of an easier-than-expected Eastern Conference and even as they struggled all season to get rhythm, the chief competition, these Pacers, fell on hard times.

At midseason when the Pacers were 33-7 and wrestling teams to submission every night with their defense while the Heat couldn't seem to get their entire team healthy for more than a few days at a time, this didn't look like a legacy-extending season. The idea that they'd build a 37-point lead in an elimination game in the conference finals just wasn't in the cards.

"I think we're often portrayed as we're just waiting for the postseason; that couldn't be further from the truth," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. " There's a lot of passion and frustration when we were dropping 10 of those games in the fourth quarter when we had leads."

All of that is gone now, just details saved for the media guide.

Wade has had a strong postseason and he averaged 20 points and shot 46 percent from 3-point range against the Pacers, 55 percent overall.

James followed up his miserable seven-point Game 5 with another commanding performance in Game 6, scoring 25 points on just 12 shots, playing with such force that he essentially broke the Pacers' backs.

It's a James effort that will probably be forgotten because he's now played so many fantastic playoff games with the Heat that he's desensitized the audience. Just like all the greats do, LeBron threw another file in the masterpiece cabinet.

Bosh, ever the popular target for criticism, averaged 22 points and eight rebounds over the final three games of the series. After hearing for a year about how Roy Hibbert had beaten him to a pulp in last year's conference finals, Bosh got the last laugh as he usually does. He whipped Hibbert in this series right up to Game 6, where his 25 points and eight rebounds mocked another hollow night from the Pacers big man, who tallied just eight meaningless points and four rebounds in 32 minutes.

Like it or not, the Heat and their stars have done something that once seemed somewhere between unlikely and impossible: They've lived up to the hype.

"You know, you get drafted, and you're just happy to be in the NBA. You want to make a name for yourself and 11 years later, you've gone to the Finals five times, and you've won championships," Wade said.

"You just never know how your life and your path is going to [play out]. If you just do things the way that you should do them, the way you feel that it should be done, live with the mistakes that you make, get better from them, and just be who you are, great things happen to you. That's a prime example for all of us. I think we've all put ourselves in great situations, and we're just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we're in because it's an amazing moment.

"It's something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes."