MIAMI - During the dog days of the regular season, the Miami Heat often spoke about the need to not take any shortcuts on the way to the playoffs.
And that's true.
That doesn't mean they necessarily enjoyed the 82-game run-up to the best time of year.
"None of us," Heat forward LeBron James finally confessed, "are here for the regular season."
When this core of Heat players was assembled, the only stated goal was winning NBA titles, which also explains why even getting through the first two rounds of these playoffs basically unscathed only merited a short celebration.
Miami is back in the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth straight season, and will visit Indiana in Game 1 on Sunday afternoon. The Heat got there by ousting the Brooklyn Nets in five games, the end of that series Wednesday night being briefly accompanied by a few hoots and hollers in the immediate moments after the clinching 96-94 win was completed.
Before long, order was restored to the Heat locker room.
Two series wins are nice, but they know the road only gets tougher from here.
"Like LeBron said, to be in this position four years in a row, this is the reason we came together four years ago," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "We've got a lot more work to do but we're a team that doesn't take it for granted. We're a team that worked very hard to get to this point, so we're going to go to the next round, the Eastern Conference finals and continue to do what we've done, play this game as hard as we can and try to continue to move forward."
Indiana ousted Washington on Thursday night. The Heat and Pacers split four meetings in the regular season.
"We know what Indiana's capable of," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "Best defence in the league. Despite their struggles, we still see the same opponent in those guys as we did last year and throughout this year."
The Heat are now 32-7 in first- and second-round games in the last four postseasons, that stretch coinciding with the start of the "Big 3" era featuring James, Wade and Bosh teaming up in Miami.
That first year, even that star-studded trio wasn't enough. More pieces were added, like Shane Battier a year later and Ray Allen two years later, and they've all paid dividends since. Allen kept coming up big at big times in the Brooklyn series, hitting clutch free throws to seal Game 4 and then knocking down a 3-pointer with 32 seconds left to put Miami ahead for good in Game 5.
Never mind that Allen had missed 11 of his last 12 3-point tries in the series. Just like last year when he saved Miami's season with the legendary desperation 3-pointer in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against San Antonio, when the stakes were highest, Allen came through.
"We did what we needed to do, when we had to do it," Allen said. "Total team effort."
Miami had trailed for the entire second half of Game 5 against the Nets until that 3-pointer by Allen, a shot set up by Mario Chalmers seeing that Brooklyn's Shaun Livingston was charging at him and somehow leaving the best long-range shooter in the history of the game wide open.
That was the only break Miami needed.
"The most important thing is to stay in the moment," Battier said. "And I don't there is anyone maybe in the history of the game who does it better than Ray Allen."
Added Chalmers: "That's a great option when you know you have the all-time greatest 3-point shooter to your left."
A year ago, the Heat needed seven games to beat Indiana in the East finals, then seven more to top San Antonio for their second straight NBA title. Thursday was a rest day for Miami, maybe one of the last ones the Heat will truly have before the season ends.
On Friday, the real work starts in earnest.
"We still have some business to take care of," James said. "But it's great to be able to put ourselves in position to get to where we want to go. We never shortcut the process. We understand that each and every game is going to be a challenge for us."