MIAMI – Not one, not two… A little more than three years ago, LeBron James stood on that stage here, the smoke swirling about him, and made one of the most audacious declarations the NBA had ever heard. He had just joined with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form the most star-powered triumvirate in the league, and now he was promising the Miami Heat fistfuls of titles.
Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…
James crowed, and he was mocked fast and hard for the boast, for the spectacle of a welcome party the Heat had thrown for him, for his narcissistic "I'm-taking-my-talents-to-South-Beach" cable TV special. He hadn't won anything yet, of course. He just acted like he had, arriving here full of pompousness and entitlement, well on his way to becoming one of the sporting world's great villains.
Somewhere in all that braggadocio, James' point was clear. He hadn't left his home state of Ohio to come to Miami to win a championship. He was here to build a dynasty, to construct his own legacy as one of the greatest to ever play.
There's no doubting his championship mettle now. Not after Thursday night. Not after an epic NBA Finals Game 7 performance that included 37 points, 12 rebounds, five 3-pointers and the decisive jump shot that finally helped finish off a 95-88 victory, that finally finished off the San Antonio Spurs. James has his second championship and Finals MVP trophy in as many years, and he won this ring in one of the tensest Finals ever.
Shane Battier made six 3-pointers, the most ever in a Finals Game 7, and Wade scored 23 points, but this victory – this championship – was won on James' dominance.
"The vision I had when I came here is all coming true," James said early Friday morning.
James had been swept by this same trio of Spurs' stars – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – during his first trip to the Finals in 2007. He was with the Cleveland Cavaliers then, and on the eve of these Finals, he said there was no comparison to the present. He proclaimed himself a much better player than he was in '07 – or even '11 when his passive performance in the Finals allowed the Dallas Mavericks to beat the Heat.
He's set out to prove himself ever since, and he's right: He is a much improved player, more immune to the pressure of the moment. Among the other areas in which James is better: He can shoot.
The Spurs dared James to shoot over them for the duration of the series, crowding the lane with another defender when he tried to drive, backing off him when he was isolated. By the second quarter of Game 7, he'd never looked more sure. The Spurs kept backing off, and he kept firing, making five 3-pointers and that critical jumper in the closing seconds.
"LeBron was unbelievable," Duncan said. "He stepped up in this last game and he made enough shots to make us change our defense over and over again. We just couldn't find a way to stop him."
James didn't win this title alone. Wade has played understudy to James for much of this season, and he did again in Game 7. Still, after limping out of Game 6 after injuring his left knee, he returned Thursday with more life – and lift – in his legs. His 14 first-half points helped buy James some time to find his own shot.
"He just helped us win," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That was the bottom line."
After six games, the Spurs and Heat had played themselves to exhaustion. Miami's thrilling overtime victory in Game 6 had drained both teams, and the enormity of Game 7 seemed to leave everyone's nerves in a jumble. The play was ragged, and neither team could find much rhythm until Battier made three 3-pointers in a short stretch bridging the first two quarters. Battier entered the game stuck in a colossal slump, having made less than 25 percent of his shots in the playoffs. When it mattered most, he found his stroke.
"I believe in basketball gods," Battier said. "I felt that they owed me big time."
The Spurs, as they have for so many of these past 16 years, continued to hang around, hang around, hang around. There had been little separation between the teams from game to game, and when Game 7 arrived, there was little distance between them from minute to minute. When Mario Chalmers banked in a pull-up 30-foot 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer, it gave Miami a 72-71 advantage.
The Heat would eventually push their lead to six, but the Spurs didn't crumble. After Battier made his sixth 3-pointer to send the home crowd into a roar, Duncan quickly quieted the arena by answering with a three-point play. Kawhi Leonard's 3-pointer brought the Spurs within two, and they had two opportunities to tie, the last coming when Duncan curled into the lane and tossed up his signature jump hook with less than a minute left. The ball caromed off the rim, and Duncan followed the rebound, tipping it back toward the basket. That, too, bounced off.
As the Heat called timeout with 39 seconds left, Duncan leaned over and slapped the court in frustration.
"Probably for me," Duncan said, "Game 7 is always going to haunt me."
The Spurs won't sleep easy, if at all. At 37 years old, Duncan was playing for his fifth – and perhaps final – title. It seemed well within his grasp when the Spurs took a five-point lead into the final 30 seconds of Game 6. In the end, they will remember this series for missed opportunities: missed free throws, missed rebounds and, as Duncan said, his own missed shots at the end of Game 7.
"There's such a fine line," Ginobili said. "Such a fine line between celebrating and having a great summer [and] now feeling like crap and just so disappointed."
The difference in these Finals came down to James, who wouldn't let this championship slip from his grasp. Clinging to a two-point lead, season on the brink, the Heat walked out of that timeout and gave the ball to James. He dribbled right, stopped, gathered himself and raised up for one of the biggest shots of his career. The arc of the shot's flight was pure, and as the ball settled into the net with 27.9 seconds left, the Heat had everything they needed for their second straight title and the franchise's third overall.
Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…
Yes, eight titles is a stretch. James might not even stick around Miami beyond next season. He can opt out of his contract a year from now, and the Cavaliers, among others, figure to call. But who knows? At 28 years old, here in Miami or elsewhere, LeBron James still has so much within his enormous reach.
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