Their season, their legacy, their reign atop the NBA was all at stake, and the Miami Heat responded in a manner befitting defending champions — with a blowout.
LeBron James scored 32 points and grabbed eight rebounds, ailing Dwyane Wade matched his postseason high with 21 points, and the Heat ran away from the Indiana Pacers 99-76 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night.
In the NBA Finals for the third straight year, the Heat will play the San Antonio Spurs in a series that starts Thursday in Miami.
"They're just an amazing group of guys," said Heat managing general partner Micky Arison, not long after handing the East championship trophy to Chris Andersen, who held it aloft as teammates standing around him celebrated. "They've given us an incredible season so far, but it's a long way from over."
It could have ended on Monday, of course. The Heat had alternated wins and losses with the Pacers in the first six games of the series, and were coming off their worst offensive outing of the year in Game 6.
They responded with a rout, despite shooting just under 40 percent, well below their norm.
"By any means necessary ... we took care of business," James said.
Miami led by as many as 28 points, a shocking amount for a series that had an aggregate score of Heat 569, Pacers 564 entering Monday night. The Heat actually trailed by six in the early going, were still down 21-19 after the first quarter and it was starting to look like it was going to be one of those down-to-the-wire nights.
Not even close.
James exited with 5:08 left, shaking retired soccer star David Beckham's hand as he made his way to the Heat bench for a relatively subdued celebration. Not long afterward, security personnel started what's become a familiar task in Miami — surrounding the court and stretching out a yellow rope, preparing to hold people at bay for the looming on-court trophy presentation.
"You never want to take anything for granted," Wade said afterward. "Being here three straight years in a row, going back to the finals, is an amazing feat. I'm just glad we were able to do it. Everything that happened in the first six games didn't mean anything to us. It was about tonight. It was about Game 7. It was about finding a way to win here at home."
More than a few people didn't stick around to see the East title formally presented. After all, it's an all-or-nothing season for the Heat — and this trophy isn't the one that will satisfy them.
Ray Allen added 10 points for Miami, which earned its 78th victory of the season, matching the 11th-best, single-season total in NBA history.
Roy Hibbert scored 18 points for the Pacers, who got 14 from David West, 13 from George Hill and 10 from Lance Stephenson. All-Star Paul George was held to seven points on 2-for-9 shooting and fouled out early in the fourth quarter.
George was the last Indiana player on the floor as Miami prepped for its postgame celebration, shaking any hand he could find before being walked toward the visiting locker room by Pacers coach Frank Vogel, who slung an arm over his star's shoulder.
His time will likely come — someday.
Not yet, though. Not with this Miami team built for titles. It's the fourth trip to the finals for the Heat, who won the title in 2006 and have now been there all three years of the "Big Three" era, falling to Dallas in 2011 and then topping Oklahoma City in five games last year.
"The great thing is we're a young team and we are past the building stage," George said. "This is really our first year tasting success. The rate we are going, we see championships soon."
They're getting closer. A second-round loss to Miami in six games last year was followed by a seven-game, conference-finals exit this time around.
Still, they'll be watching the title round.
Miami went 2-0 against San Antonio this season, though neither of those games should be considered harbingers of what's ahead. The Spurs rested four regulars in the first meeting, the Heat were without three injured starters in the second matchup.
James delivered an inspirational address of sorts to his team Monday morning, publicly revealing no details of what he said afterward other than insisting that the Heat would be ready.
He was right. After 5 minutes, it was 12-6 Indiana. After that, the rest of the half was pretty much all Miami.
Once the Pacers cooled off a bit, the Heat immediately went into pull-away mode. Over the final 19 minutes of the half, Miami's edge was 46-25. Over the final 11 minutes, it was 33-14, as James and Allen outscored the Pacers by themselves.
Allen did less pregame shooting than usual on Monday. He was at the arena several hours before game time — as is his custom — and got in a pregame workout, but once he found a groove, he decided that was enough. And after going 13 for 46 in the first six games of the series, the NBA's career leader in 3-pointers had to believe that he was simply overdue to get going.
His first shot on Monday was a 3-pointer that connected, giving the Heat a 26-23 lead.
The Heat never trailed again.
By halftime, it was 52-37, with James scoring 18 points, Chris Bosh and Wade combining for 17 and Allen adding 10 more. And what had to be most troubling to the Pacers at halftime was their 15 turnovers, a number Vogel said earlier Monday would spell trouble if his team committed that many in the entire game.
And in the third, the run the Pacers so desperately needed never arrived. Indiana was still within 13 with 3:37 left in the period when Hibbert picked up his fourth foul. Ordinarily, that would mean someone goes to the bench, though Game 7 on the road for a trip to the finals hardly could be classified as an ordinary occasion.
So Vogel — who was second-guessed for not having Hibbert on the floor for the final moments in overtime of Game 1, when James got to the rim easily for a game-winning layup — left his center out there with four fouls.
Barely a minute later, it backfired. Hibbert picked up his fifth late in the third, and George got to five fouls by getting whistled twice in the final 46.1 seconds of the quarter.
By then, the outcome was obvious.
It was Miami's night.
And here's a look ahead to Heat vs. Spurs:
The NBA Finals matchup is set, and the Miami Heat will either win a second straight championship or the Spurs will go a perfect 5 for 5 in the title round while denying LeBron James a ring for the second time.
So it's Heat vs. Spurs for the Larry O'Brien Trophy, a series that will begin Thursday in Miami, on the same floor where the Heat and James finished off Oklahoma City to win last season's title.
Miami is looking for its third championship, San Antonio its fifth. And for James, it's a chance to erase a memory that has stung him for six years.
His first trip to the finals came when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, and it was ugly — the Spurs winning in a four-game sweep for what was their fourth title. San Antonio has not won the West since, so maybe it's fitting that its return comes against James, albeit with the now four-time MVP in a different uniform.
"Obviously, I needed more," James said. "Our team, we were really good, but we weren't great. And that was a great team. We lost to a better team. So I understand that we needed more. We continued to get better over the years, but we never got to that level."
When that series was over, Spurs forward Tim Duncan approached James in a quiet moment and offered some words of encouragement about his budding superstardom.
Four MVPs, two more finals trips and one ring — and counting — later, James' star level is now meteoric. He'll have a chance to not only win consecutive championships, but consecutive regular-season and finals MVPs as well.
"The best player in the world," is how Indiana coach Frank Vogel described James.
When the Heat and Spurs play on Thursday night, it will mark their third meeting of the season. It may as well be the first.
Miami won both games this season, though it's doubtful much of anything worthwhile could be gleaned for the scouting reports from those contests. The Spurs sat four regulars in the first meeting, and drew a $250,000 fine from the NBA after coach Gregg Popovich's decision to send Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tony Parker home before the game and at the end of a long road trip.
Predictably, Popovich's decision was immediately subject to scrutiny, and he even joked in his pregame media availability that night that the crowd of journalists around him resembled what he'd see in an NBA Finals setting.
Which, come Wednesday when both teams will practice in Miami, is exactly what Popovich will see. It'll be a finals that have a clash of on-court, off-court and even cultural styles. The Heat play a flashier brand of basketball, have stars who are some of the world's best-known — and best-paid — endorsers of products, and have had no choice but to embrace a constant spotlight.
The Spurs, meanwhile, seem to revel in shunning any sort of extra attention.
"I wouldn't say we avoid the attention, but I don't think we're out seeking it," Spurs forward Matt Bonner said. "Our team culture starts with our leadership, guys like Timmy and Coach Pop, that we focus on ourselves and what we need to do to complete the task, get the job done. Whatever attention we get outside of that, I don't think we run from it, but we're not out seeking it. At least, I think so. I hope so."
When the teams met in San Antonio in late March, Miami's 27-game winning streak — the second-best run in NBA history — had just ended, so the Heat kept James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers out while dealing with injuries. And Miami prevailed anyway behind Chris Bosh, who hit a late 3-pointer to seal an 88-86 victory.
Nobody will be resting anybody on Thursday night. The Spurs, who will have been idle for more than a week by the time Game 1 starts, finally know who stands in their way.
"I think the latter part of these days are kind of getting kind of long," Duncan said Monday. "But good preparation, good recovery time, all that stuff. Just anxious to know our opponent and start preparing for them."
The Spurs have been going live in practice, trying their best to stay sharp.
"It's just long. It's long," Parker said of the layoff. "Wish we could play like right now."
Soon enough, he'll get his wish.