MIAMI – They plopped themselves on the edge of the stage, under a hail of NBA championship confetti. Dwyane Wade cradled the Larry O'Brien Trophy. LeBron James held the Finals MVP award.
This was the plan three summers ago, a unification of two mega-stars (well, three, but we'll spare discussion of that for the time being) and a run of championships they might start piecing together here in South Florida. The clumsy announcement of "The Decision," the obnoxious pep rally prediction of "not four, not five, not …" titles, the entire sense of entitlement had made this team so easy to root against and, in the end, produced the very fire of criticism that drove it to these heights.
For LeBron, it was 37 points and 12 rebounds. For D-Wade, 23 and 10. Miami 95, San Antonio 88, four games to three, second straight title for the Heat.
And so there they sat in a shared state of euphoria trying to look around and soak it in, wearing goofy hats and broad smiles borne of challenges met as much as championships won. It's funny how the journey turned out to be more important than the destination.
"Oh man, man, man," Wade said. "This is sweet. This is the sweetest one by far because of everything we've been through."
"The vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true," LeBron echoed.
There's probably never been a team this great, a duo this dominating, that's been so ripped apart. Each loss delivers doubt. Each failure produces giddiness from critics. Legacy is constantly being defined and redefined, debated and re-debated – especially on LeBron, despite the fact that he's just 28 years old.
Heavy is the head that calls himself the King, and, so, yes, that's all part of it. The Heat bring it on themselves at times. But if it's fair to demand so much from those given so much, then let them have their moment when Wade rises up through sore knees in such a critical stage. When James simply takes the game over in the moments that demand greatness.
Both produced nights built not simply from natural ability but from hours and hours of work and toughness, both physical and mental. Wade never made his knees an excuse, never sat, never stopped. He just kept pushing and pushing, even pleading with them, he said, to give him one more night.
"I told them, I said, 'Listen, both of you guys, y'all give one more great game,'" Wade laughed at his conversation with his knees.
And there was LeBron, draining jump shots – making five of his 10 3-pointers – because the Spurs worked so hard to keep him off the blocks and out of the paint. This was long the weakest part of his game, a skill acquired rather than a strength he was born with. This was forever his effort in the gym, offseasons and off days.
When you're making shots like that, LeBron was asked, you're totally unstoppable.
"Yeah, I am," he said with a laugh. "You said it … I just trusted all the work that I put into my game. And to be able to come through for your teammates in the biggest moment on the biggest stage makes me more satisfied than anything in the world."
This was a moment for these two. And not the moment maybe they expected. Oh, winning consecutive titles was always the plan, always the inevitable they figured.
Only the entire thing has been tougher, harder, meaner than they could have foreseen.
Nationally, fans didn't embrace this marriage the way they thought. Locally, a super team excited the city, but this was still a fan base that saw thousands bail out of Game 6 with 30 seconds remaining, no faith in their heroes.
And especially across this last month, back-to-back seven-game slugfests, the road to the title was tighter than ever. They needed every ounce of muscle to fight through Indiana. They needed a miracle comeback to stave off elimination Tuesday. They needed their own greatness and an unexpected 18 points from Shane Battier to prevail Thursday.
The Heat had just five players score in Game 7 and one of them, Chris Birdman Andersen, had just three points. This was a night when there was no margin other than greatness for Wade and LeBron, not with the Spurs coming and coming.
"Last year when I was sitting up here, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done," LeBron said. "This year, I'll tell last year he's absolutely wrong. This was the toughest championship right here.
"I mean, everything we've been through this postseason, we were down 1-0, we tied it. We were able to take a lead, but then we were down. We were scratching for our lives in Game 6, down five with 28 seconds to go."
Given the choice, they'd probably prefer to sweep their way to the title. But in the long run, this is what these two covet. Validation.
Wade is a blue-collar kid out of Robbins, Ill. James comes out of hardscrabble Akron, Ohio. For their immense talents and all the glamour of their lives here near South Beach, there is equal parts grit. And getting to display that on this stage will forever be rewarding.
So no, this has never quite gone according to plan. Tougher critics, tougher competition than maybe they predicted in those heady, naïve days when they first teamed up.
To that, even the endless chorus of doubters, they'll accept.
"Everybody has an opinion," Wade said. "But without doubt, maybe I'm not here today."
"Please continue to motivate me," LeBron said to the media. "I need you guys."
So there they were, up on a stage, under the confetti, hugging their hardware. The end result was, again, what they expected. Another title. It was the journey that just happened to turn out sweeter than they could have imagined.
NBA Finals coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
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• LeBron James leads Heat to second straight championship with big Game 7
• Mario Chalmers beats buzzer, hits critical three
• Photos: Miami celebrates its second straight championship
• LeBron's dagger secures championship for Heat
• Heat take what's theirs in Game 7 vs. Spurs
• Chris Birdman Andersen celebrates NBA title exactly how you'd think he would