For the entirety of the regular season, the supremacy of the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference was brought into serious question by the Indiana Pacers.
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 the two-time defending champions 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 finals.
"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 its 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 in which 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."
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 has joined them, and its quest for a third straight title starts in either San Antonio or Oklahoma City on Thursday night.
The way Miami 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 had been 35.
After a layup by James with 3:39 left in the third quarter, the margin in this one was a whopping 37 — 86-49. James' night ended not long afterward.