MIAMI – Anytime an NBA franchise is trying to do something only previously done by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, that's rarefied air.
That's what the Miami Heat are trying to reach this season.
After going to the NBA Finals in each of the past three seasons — winning the last two titles — the Heat now aim to join an exclusive club. Only the Celtics, from 1957-66 and again from 1984-87, and the Lakers, from 1982-85, have made at least four consecutive trips to the championship series.
"It would mean everything, man," said Heat forward LeBron James. "First of all, it means that I'm doing my part and I'm helping our team get better. It would mean everything to our team. That's what we're here for. We work our tails off every day. If it can pay off with another Finals appearance, we'd represent the Eastern Conference the best way we can."
Miami was taken to the limit twice in last season's playoffs, needing to prevail in Game 7s to beat Indiana in the East finals, then topple San Antonio in the NBA Finals.
Ray Allen's dramatic 3-pointer to save the Heat in Game 6 against the Spurs will forever be the stuff of highlight lore. They put together a 27-game winning streak in the regular season a year ago, the second-longest in NBA history. All that, the Heat say, is pretty much pushed aside now.
"This has been a very competitive camp," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Guys are in here, working, every single day."
They're doing so with a singular goal of winning it all.
"When you put this kind of talent together, there's always people on the outside trying to figure out ways why it shouldn't work," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "When you're on the inside and can put it together and show them that it can work, it's a great feeling. For us to be able to go to the Finals three straight times and hopefully go again, what more can you ask for?
Here's five things to watch from the Heat in the 2013-14 season:
LEBRON BETTER?: He's won four MVP awards, two championships, two Finals MVP awards and he's considered the best player on the planet. And yet every year, LeBron James insists he can get better. Whether it's his mid-range jumper, his post game, his foul shooting, James typically finds a way to improve his game every season. If he pulls that trick off again this year, the Heat will become even bigger favorites to claim a third straight title.
DRIVEN WADE: The Heat guard knows he's being second-guessed. Again. He's one of only four players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists last year, but knee problems during the playoffs have led to him fielding questions about his perceived decline. Wade is going into his 11th Miami season, and it would seem like there's a strong chance he could be in the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth time. With three rings already, he's playing for legacy now.
BOSH'S ROLE: On the offensive end, it's usually quite clear — James is option No. 1, Wade is option No. 2, which leaves Chris Bosh as option No. 3. He made his peace with it long ago, but his stated goal for this season is to not play like a third option. Bosh says he wants this to be the best season of his career.
SHOOTERS ABOUND: Mike Miller — a 3-point postseason hero for Miami — leaves through the amnesty provision, and the Heat have James Jones or Rashard Lewis or Roger Mason Jr. to slap in his place. And that's with Ray Allen and Shane Battier still leading the way as Miami's designated sharpshooters, and with point guard Mario Chalmers also a proven commodity from long range. Yes, losing Miller makes Miami less deep on the perimeter. There's still plenty of shooting.
AVOIDING BOREDOM: Don't look for the Heat to take the regular season for granted. Spoelstra is fond of saying there's no shortcuts, so it's pretty clear that Miami will not take the 82-game regular season as just a meaningless stretch of games before the inevitable playoff run.