(Eds: New lead. Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)
MIAMI (AP) — Erik Spoelstra said he mentioned how daunting the task would be only once.
Back in September, when the Miami Heat assembled to begin training camp, Spoelstra addressed his team about furthering its championship legacy and how rare it is for a team to find its way to the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons.
"We've never brought it up since then," Spoelstra said.
It'll get brought up now. The seed the Heat coach planted in the Bahamas at that training camp took root. The Heat are Finals-bound — for the fourth straight time.
The sputtering stretches of play in March and April, surrendering the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs to Indiana, winning 12 fewer games in this regular season than a year ago, they all seem moot and meaningless now. The Heat have a chance at a third consecutive NBA title, with the Finals starting Thursday night against either San Antonio or Oklahoma City.
"It's amazing to make it to one Finals," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "To do it four times in a row for some of these guys, it's a tremendous, tremendous accomplishment and it speaks volumes to the dedication, luck, and perseverance that you need to do it."
Spoelstra spoke of that luck factor when he gathered his team for a locker-room huddle moments after the celebration started Friday night, after Miami wrapped up its fourth straight East crown with a 117-92 win over Indiana to win the series in six games. His words were interrupted twice by LeBron James, which nobody minded.
"We don't take this for granted," Spoelstra said.
"No, sir," James added, nodding.
"We do not take it for granted," Spoelstra repeated.
"No way," James interjected.
"How tough it actually is and how many things have to go our way," Spoelstra continued. "Four times, you guys who haven't been here with us the whole time, you guys inherit everything that we've experienced."
Only six current Heat players appeared in the 2011 postseason, Miami's first of the "Big 3" era and the last in which it actually lost a series. James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, James Jones and Udonis Haslem are the last holdovers.
Battier and Norris Cole arrived after the 2011 Finals loss. Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Rashard Lewis — all playing huge roles these days for Miami — came after the first title run of this Heat era in 2012. The core of last season's title squad, with the exception of amnestied Mike Miller, was back to try it again this time around.
Even with all that talent, with that championship experience, Spoelstra knew a tone had to be immediately set when the season began.
"What I was really encouraged about was our attendance and commitment in training camp in the Bahamas," Spoelstra said. "Right from there, and we communicated during the summer that, if we're real about this, about how difficult that journey is, that you cannot shortcut, that we would show it immediately in training camp."
They're still showing it now.
Miami is 12-3 in these playoffs, 8-0 at home, and has won a road game in 15 straight postseason series. The Heat will need to extend that streak to win the NBA Finals; either the Spurs or the Thunder will hold home-court advantage when the title series gets underway.
"Obviously, going through the weeks and weeks and weeks and grinding months of a regular season, it was a toll on all of us," James said. "But I felt like down the stretch, if we could get healthy, we could get everyone in uniform and have our full strength, it didn't matter what seed we were. I felt like we can represent the Eastern Conference again in the Finals if we had the health, and we were able to accomplish that."
At times, like Friday night, they make winning look easy.
Collectively, they insist it's much harder than it appears.
"You still have to go out and do it every single night," Allen said. "It's the toughest thing I've ever done and I guarantee the guys in this locker room would say the same thing."
Only the Lakers and Celtics have appeared in four straight Finals, with Boston (1984-87) the last to do so. Wade was 5 when that run ended, James was 2, and Cole, Michael Beasley and Greg Oden hadn't even been born.
Now the Heat are in that club. And regarding what Spoelstra said in that first-day conversation, the point of his words then has become perfectly clear to his team now.
"Having a chance to win is always a special thing," Bosh said. "We always talk about not taking it for granted from Day One. We know it's a very long season. It has its rewards in the end if we stick together and do what we're supposed to do. But it hasn't really hit us yet. I would rather it hit me in two weeks."