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19 June 2012: Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh (1), Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) and Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (3) stand during the national anthem prior to the Miami Heat 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, at the AmericanAirlinesArena, Miami, Florida, USA.
Miami Heat

Miami’s ‘Big 3’ era started beautiful, ended ugly

Mark Halmas/Icon Sportswire

The confines of the couch were as restricting as the bars of any cage, and so I got up and paced behind it, each frantic step creaking on the hardwood floors in perfect pace with the frenetic beating in my chest.

This was six years ago, on a date I’ll never forget: July 8, 2010. And when the often-parodied phrase was uttered by LeBron James — “I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach…” — I screamed until my voice went hoarse.

I can’t help but feel embarrassed revealing this, an honest display that now seems excessive. But this was a time before I was even aware of the world of basketball writing, of attempting to wear the ill-fitting, impossible hat of unbiased journalism. I was simply a fan then, devoted to a piece of laundry, a jersey that had defined a part of me for years.

And so when James announced his decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as members of the Miami Heat, of course, I yelled, as fans do, at the prospect of a team — my team — suddenly replete with a historically great accumulation of talent.

The last member of the trio had his tenure cut short on Monday, with Heat president Pat Riley confirming that Bosh’s on-again, off-again saga with Miami had officially come to an end. This news comes two months after Wade left to join his hometown Bulls and two years after James returned to the team that drafted him, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There’s a sense of guilty relief that Riley’s statement evokes in that it finally brings closure to an issue that has ominously clouded over the team since early 2015. No one wanted to see Bosh’s career end on such a sorry note, but at least both he and the team can finally move on, and try to do what’s best for themselves. That a break between the two would be welcomed is a stark contrast from the unity Heat fans felt when the team was formed in 2010.

James’ televised announcement drove the initial wedge between South Florida and the rest of country. Fans in Cleveland and 28 other cities fumed for a variety of perceived and misguided slights. At first, they attacked the format in which James announced his intentions, all while ignoring the hypocrisy that millions of them had watched with bated breath. 

Then, they decried how the trio had been formed, secretly hoping the same thing had happened in Chicago, New York or elsewhere. When the reality of the team’s prowess eventually sunk in, then they protested that Miami would never deserve a title just to mask the fear that a championship would continue to be denied to whatever team they rooted for.

 

But just as the Heat became a shared enemy that bonded opponents, Miami’s fans were unified in their protection of the team, the start of a four-year celebration of “us vs. them”. There was certainly a period of adjustment that opposing fans couldn’t wait to pounce on as a sign of predictable failure. A rough start to the 2010-11 season was severely dramatized but showed obvious growing pains. In truth, James, Wade and Bosh struggled to learn how to blend their unique individual talents together with a combination of role players that wasn’t always up to the task. A 9-8 record was the result.

But suddenly, the Heat sharpened in focus and would win an amazing 21 of the next 22 games, validating their opponent’s fears even as they (particularly James) embraced the disingenuous role of league-wide villain.

These first few months of the season would provide a glimpse of Miami’s fearsome potential. During the four years of the “Big 3” era, the regular season was simply a formality that was faced with indifference. Although early pronouncements had pegged the Heat as capable of winning 70 or more games in a season, that was never a goal for the team; only a championship mattered. 

Still, there was a sense that they could win whenever they wanted to, that opponents were like a ball of string to a cat, something to be toyed with at their convenience.

There were pratfalls to that casual indifference, of course, most notably in the 2011 NBA Finals when a less-talented Dallas Mavericks team would take advantage of Miami’s hubris and deny James and Bosh their first title. That defeat would provide a much-needed jolt for the Heat, who would attack the next lockout-shortened season with renewed focus and new supporting players to complement the team’s dynamic trio.

The addition of proven veteran Shane Battier had a particularly strong impact, providing quality defense, tenacity and perimeter shooting. But an injury to Bosh during the playoffs would inadvertently lead to a significant turning point. With Bosh sidelined, head coach Erik Spoelstra would turn to Battier as a starter. 

The move proved to be a brilliant one, with James and Battier switching responsibilities on offense and defense and platooning at power forward. Spoelstra de-emphasized the center position (using a combination that included Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and the undersized Udonis Haslem) and created a smaller lineup that was more effective than ever.

When Bosh eventually returned to the starting lineup — at center — the Heat would reach their most dominant level of play. The Heat overwhelmed the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games during the 2012 Finals, providing the “Big 3” with their first taste of championship success.

 

This potent lineup would be known as the “Flying Death Machine”, a smallish rotation that could provide a trapping, perimeter defense that led to easy turnovers and an offense that was virtually unstoppable. James’ passing, Wade’s athleticism and Bosh’s expanded range would work in perfect and efficient unison, making the team’s early struggles a distant memory.

The 2012-13 season was likely the team’s pinnacle, with James at the absolute height of his powers and a strengthened bench rotation that include newly-added veteran sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. The regular-season grind would be the team’s greatest adversary until a game against the Toronto Raptors would again serve as a much-needed turning point.

The Raptors game was scheduled to take place on Super Bowl Sunday, in Toronto no less. The team was motivated by the scheduling slight, cruised to an easy win, and then bonded together at a private affair to enjoy the football, friendship and festivities. Legend has it that Battier would provide an inspirational speech that ignited the team, and the result would be a 27-game winning streak that was the second-longest in NBA history (the league may consider Golden State’s 28-game streak over two seasons as the second-longest, but I do not).

 

The Heat would win a franchise-best 66 games that season, the best regular-season record of the “Big 3” era. Still, the team likely etched their place in league history with a seven-game Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs that is widely accepted as a modern-day classic. 

The Spurs have maintained over a decade of championship excellence and were an excellent challenge to knock Miami off the NBA throne. What the Heat had in athleticism, the Spurs possessed in terms of discipline and structure. The Spurs held a five-point lead in Game 6 and were just 28.2 seconds away from the team’s fifth title. Instead, James, Bosh and Allen combined to form one of the most exciting comebacks ever.

 

The clutch shot by Allen forced overtime, and Miami would go on to win the game and the conclusive Game 7. Miami’s second-consecutive championship is likely the last bright spot during this era of Heat basketball.

The following season was a long, grinding exercise, going through the motions for a season that was, at least technically, still a success. Team president Pat Riley made two cost-cutting personnel decisions that impacted the team’s goodwill and spirit, trading away Joel Anthony and cutting Mike Miller. Wade’s health was a major issue, and he would miss 28 games. Bosh wasn’t as effective as team’s learned to adjust to Miami’s smaller lineups. James grew increasingly dissatisfied with the team, front office and the ever-growing burden he was forced to carry.

While the team still sloughed their way to a fourth-straight Finals appearance, the season was a joyless one, as many players have since attested to. The goodwill and camaraderie that was there in 2010 had been ebbing away slowly. The constant scrutiny, over-analysis and physical demands had taken their toll. The pursuit of a third-straight championship was, in truth, the team’s only goal but they fell short of that when the reinvigorated Spurs sought revenge, dismantling Miami in the 2014 Finals.

Shortly afterward, James would join the Cavaliers, a move that was, in sharp contrast to 2010, publicly lauded as a heroic return home. Coming back to his hometown team and, thus, rebuilding his legacy as a player was certainly a factor in James’ decision. But the struggles of the 2013-14 season in combination with a growing distrust of Riley and the Heat front office established an unfortunate precedent.

Bosh and Wade both re-signed with the Heat in 2014 but would each deal with issues that would weaken their relationship with Miami’s front office. Wade would become a free agent again in 2015 and engage in a messy contract negotiation before ultimately re-signing with the Heat; a similar pattern this year led to the completely unexpected departure to Chicago.

Bosh, for his part, would face a recurrence of life-threatening blood clots that would end two consecutive seasons prematurely. A third recurrence was recently discovered and led to Riley’s announcement but not before Bosh publicly explained how he had felt “written off” by the team earlier this year.

Six years after its formation, the last vestige of the “Big 3” era has moved on. And while the trio itself were only teammates for four seasons, you could argue that we last saw the very best of them at the end of the 2013 Finals. This was far too short a time for a team that had such an impact on millions of fans, the league itself and, ultimately, the history of basketball.

I’ve changed, too, during that time, and tried to separate myself from the emotions of rooting for any one team while trying to appreciate them all. It’s made a little easier when players like James, Bosh and Wade openly feud with a team and remind us all of an ugly side of this game that means so much to so many.

But even as I write this, and remember all of the things that made this team so great — the acrobatic offense, stifling defense, laughs and success shared by this historic group — there’s a part of me that will forever stand behind that couch, yelling loudly to no one in particular.

Miami’s ‘Big 3’ era started beautiful, ended ugly

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