Then came the playoffs.
And the question was answered -- emphatically.
The Heat became the third franchise in NBA history to reach the title series in four consecutive seasons, a laugher of a conference-title finale getting them there again Friday night. LeBron James and Chris Bosh each scored 25 points, and Miami eliminated the Pacers for the third straight year with a 117-92 romp in Game 6 of the East championship series.
"I'm blessed. Very blessed. Very humbled," James said. "And we won't take this opportunity for granted. It's an unbelievable franchise, it's an unbelievable group. And we know we still have work to do, but we won't take this for granted. We're going to four straight Finals and we will never take this for granted."
Dwyane Wade and Rashard Lewis each scored 13 points for Miami, which trailed 9-2 before ripping off 54 of the next 75 points to erase any doubt by halftime. The Heat set a franchise record with their 11th straight home postseason win, going back to the final two games of last season's NBA Finals, leading by 37 at one point.
"The group loves to compete and loves to compete at the highest level, and be pushed to new levels," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Indiana led the East for much of the regular season, one where the Pacers were fueled by the memory of losing Game 7 of the East finals in Miami a year ago. So they spent this season with a clear goal: Toppling Miami as kings of the East.
The Pacers were two games better in the regular season.
They were two games worse in the postseason. Game 7, this time, would have been in Indianapolis. The Pacers just had no shot of making it happen, not on this night.
"It's bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "It's bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row. But we're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them for the way they played this whole series."
"No regrets. All of us played hard. They were just the better team, and they won," Stephenson said.
So now, the Celtics and Lakers have some company.
Until Friday, they were the only teams in NBA history to reach the Finals in four straight years. The Heat have joined them, and their quest for a third straight title starts in either San Antonio or Oklahoma City on Thursday night.
"It's all about 15 special men and what they've been able to accomplish these last four years," said Heat managing general partner Micky Arison, who handed the East title trophy to Greg Oden. "Just a little bit more work to do, but I'm really proud of the incredible job that these guys have done."
The way they played in Game 6 made a prophet out of Bosh, who predicted Miami would play its best game of the season. The numbers suggested he was right, and then some.
Miami's largest lead at any point this season, before Game 6, was 36 points. Indiana's largest deficit of the season had been 35 points.
After a layup by James with 3:39 left in the third, the margin in this one was a whopping 37 -- 86-49. James' night ended not long afterward.
"It was just one of those games that we want to play from beginning to end," Bosh said. "Here on our home court, we wanted to make a statement."
There were the now-requisite Stephenson events, adding intrigue to the first half. The Indiana guard walked over to James and tapped him in the face in the opening minutes, stood over him after both got tangled under the basket, and got whistled for a flagrant foul for striking Norris Cole in the head in the second quarter.
It was the end of a memorable series for Stephenson, none of which really had anything to do with basketball. His string of newsworthy moments from these East finals started when he talked about the health of Wade's knees before the series and reached an apex in Game 5 when he blew into James' ear and walked into a Heat huddle.
When it was over, Stephenson went out and shook hands with plenty of Heat players, as did the rest of his teammates.
"To work so hard and to get to where we are now really hurts," Stephenson said.
The Heat were bothered by it all -- "angry," Spoelstra confessed -- but got the last laugh. Big Brother, again, reigned supreme in this rivalry.
Vogel was using the big brother-little brother analogy earlier in the series, telling the tale of how at some point in every sibling rivalry the younger one has to make a stand.
Indiana thought it would happen now.
The Heat, obviously, had other ideas.
"They've won championships," West said Friday when asked if the Pacers considered themselves Miami's equal. "No, we're not equal."
West said those words about eight hours before game time.
They were in no dispute at night's end.
NOTES: James appeared in what became his 100th playoff victory. ... The Pacers are now 7-12 against Miami in the last three postseasons, and 20-10 against everybody else. ... Wade and Udonis Haslem are going to the NBA Finals for the fifth time in nine seasons -- with a 15-67 season on their record during that stretch as well. ... Chris Andersen returned from a thigh injury, scoring nine points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 13 minutes for Miami.