— OKLAHOMA CITY - For months, we've heard the prattle.
LeBron James again had found his love for the game. The Heat would heed the lessons of their first Big Three season together and emerge stronger for the journey. The subtle free-agency addition of Shane Battier would make more than a subtle difference.
And yet they still couldn't push past the Bulls for the top seed in the East during the regular season, even with Derrick Rose often out.
Then Miami managed to fall behind the Pacers in the second round, and twice had to stave off elimination against the last-leg Celtics in the third round.
So yes, the Heat again arrived at the Finals one step from salvation, this time with James in possession of a third Most Valuable Player trophy.
But what we didn't know was what they would do in the ultimate moment, what they would do when a team just as talented would push back, and do it greater than Carmelo Anthony in the first round, David West in the second or Kevin Garnett in the third.
The initial Finals sample hardly was heartening, Tuesday's 105-94 series-opening loss making it already look like another wait-for-next-year year for James.
Then came Thursday.
And then came the Thunder, a team too impetuous to know better than to give up, a team that four times this postseason already had overcome deficits of 13 points or more. Down 17 in the first half, down 15 in the third quarter, they did what they did to the Spurs. They went all Durant. And all Westbrook. And all Harden on the Heat.
The lead was dwindling. James was gassed. Dwyane Wade was committing one particularly horrifying turnover at midcourt, Chris Bosh fumbling a pass in the post.
No, it wasn't quite Wade standing with arm exaggeratingly outstretched in front of the Mavericks' bench with the Heat up 15 in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of last year's Finals, but it was a 13-point lead early in this fourth quarter at the Thunder's dome.
A year ago, the Heat melted against the Mavericks in that Game 2 and in that series. It was a game that exposed the Heat's Big Three as a team not up to the moment or the challenge. A week later, they were finished, banished to an offseason of lockout purgatory and then these past six months of lingering doubt.
But then flash back to Thursday, when the lead kept dwindling, the doubts kept rising, a season quite possibly about to slip away, considering only three teams have ever overcome 0-2 deficits in the Finals.
So what happens? James makes his free throws. All four of them in the fourth quarter, all 12 in the game.
And he steps up to the defensive challenge on Kevin Durant on the game's decisive sequence, with 9.9 seconds to play. Did he foul Durant on that running jumper? Heck yeah. Was a foul called? Heck no.
Why? Because maybe it finally is turning, the very type of game the Heat bungled to Nowitzki and the Mavericks a year ago this time going the Heat's way. James rebounded that Durant miss, stepped up to the line and made a pair of free throws with 7.1 seconds left to close the scoring in the 100-96 victory, the type of free throws he previously would rim out, at least one, leaving the door open for a team that had drained three 3-pointers already in the period.
Was this heroic LeBron? Not really. He shot 1 of 4 in that fourth quarter. He glared at teammates for their mindless turnovers. He looked positively drained at the finish.
And he ultimately found himself back in the same spot he stood a year ago, tied 1-1 in the Finals.
In that sense, little has changed. It was after Game 2 a year ago that the Heat began to take on the look of a team grasping for answers, Big Three cockiness about to give way to desperation.
Even now, with the Heat playing as the road team a year later, it would take victories in all three middle games to avoid returning to, arguably, the loudest NBA arena ever. Thursday was the Thunder's first home loss of this postseason. It would be hard to bank on another.
Yes this year, instead of arrogance when ahead in a Game 2, the Heat showed the necessary respect for the moment, the type of professionalism Battier has added to the mix, his 10-year quest to reach these Finals adding needed perspective to this title quest. This isn't Juwan Howard hanging on for a ring last season, this is Battier contributing with an unexpected volley of 3-pointers and enough relief defense against Durant to keep James fresher for the finish.
Last year's Finals went six games and these Finals look as if they'll go at least as long.
Last year's Finals ended with James exiting as villain, mocking Nowitzki's flu before one loss and then the menial existences of many after the season's final loss.
But this LeBron and these Heat and this series look different.
With the Thunder battling from 13 back to win Game 1 and then almost making it from 17 back Thursday, this will be a series where the focus, rightfully so, will be on the winner.
And after Thursday night, when he absorbed the best shots of Durant and still found a way for his team to come out ahead, that winner just might be LeBron.