MIAMI – The best player on the planet doesn't run and leap onto scorer's tables, fire his fists into the air and declare himself a champion for the ages. For everything LeBron James had once represented to the world about self-indulgence and hubris, his back-to-back championship moment had been a true testament to his transformation, a salute to those San Antonio Spurs responsible for making demands of his talents, bringing out the best out of the MVP, the best out of basketball.
Through the bodies flooding the floor and the confetti falling out of the rafters, James found Tim Duncan on the floor, wrapped two arms around him and squeezed him tightly. Six years ago, James had been obliterated and Duncan had thanked him for letting the Spurs win one more title before James completely controlled the sport. Six years later, it belonged to James, and soon they handed him the Finals MVP trophy on the podium for the second consecutive season – after a colossal 37 points and 12 rebounds in a 95-88 Game 7 victory for the Miami Heat on Thursday night – and the first words tumbling out of James' mouth were about the Spurs.
"They pushed us to the limit," James said.
They pushed the Heat to the limit and elevated the elegance of the sport, the grace, the competitive ferocity and sportsmanship. As epic as these seven games had been – a Game 6 that'll be remembered as maybe the greatest Finals game – this series was a referendum on everything basketball ought to be at the highest level.
As broadcaster and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy walked out of American Airlines Arena, he said, "You know, it shows that you don't have to be an [expletive] to be a competitor, to be a great champion."
In defeat, the Spurs demand a respect out of opponents, demand a behavior that meets the standards of Duncan and Gregg Popovich, a professionalism of R.C. Buford and Manu Ginobili. They're the pinnacle of programs, owners of the most precious possession in our transient sports culture – staying power. As dramatic as James had been in victory – as alone as he stands above everyone in the sport – he has come to find a grace in victory that'll carry on far beyond the closing down of these Spurs' franchise core.
When it was over, Popovich didn't respond with despair, but gratitude. He could've asked for no more out of these Spurs, no more resilience to reach the NBA Finals – never mind to reach down for something more after that devastating Game 6 loss. He met the Heat's stars on the floor with big smiles, congratulating them and even planting a kiss on the cheek of Dwyane Wade.
"It was a great series, and we felt that," Popovich said. "In all honesty, even in defeat, I'm starting to enjoy what our group accomplished already. It's no fun to lose, but we lost to a better team. And you can live with that as long as you've given your best.
"And I think we have."
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Such peace washed over Popovich, and you could understand the reason: He knew these Spurs had gone the distance for him, and most of all, in that franchise's culture, for each other. They'll forever rue the final moments of Game 6, the so-close of Game 7, but there's inevitability of LeBron James that once existed with Michael Jordan.
Whatever the Spurs tried, whatever configurations and contraptions sent his way, James responded with a solution. All over the floor, James made shots in Game 7, crushing blow upon crushing blow to perhaps the final chance these Spurs get to be champions together. The best player comes to break hearts, break spirits, but he never did break the will of these Spurs.
This was an NBA Finals for the ages, a blueprint for a global game on how it's played unselfishly, wisely and with peerless passion and precision. Heat president Pat Riley pushed hard to get himself front-and-center on the championship podium, leaving his two-time titleist coach, Erik Spoelstra, in the backdrop as the commissioner passed old man Riles the trophy. For such a spectacular ego lording over these Heat, the reflection upon his coaches and players resemble far more Popovich than Riley.
The victors full of grace and gratitude, the confetti dropped out of the rafters, and James and Wade went to embrace Duncan and the Spurs before they ever rushed into a celebration. Something happened across these two weeks – something galvanizing for the teams, something inspiring for the sport – and everyone on the floor understood in the final moments of a monumental series.
Two championships for James, and the comparisons come faster and faster to Jordan now. However far away he stands – yes, four titles – James has surpassed Jordan in ways already, a far more gracious winner, a far more complimentary teammate and rival. No climbing onto tables to declare his championship salvation, no marching defiantly with his MVP trophy. These were the NBA's forever Finals, born out of a championship struggle for the ages. James grabbed Duncan, wrapped his arms around him and squeezed so tightly.
"They pushed us to the limit," James marveled on the podium, and James and these Heat so desperately needed it to happen. For the framing of James' legacy – for the fortifying of these Finals, this league, and this sport – this had been one of the finest fortnights the sport has seen. LeBron James, a forever champion holding the forever franchise back in the final minutes of Game 7, and ultimately holding onto Tim Duncan in the first few moments of a championship celebration.
San Antonio brought out the best of the NBA's MVP, the best of these NBA Finals, the best of basketball. Six years later, they had taught James the hardest lessons on the jagged journey to a championship, to staying power. Here was the finest hour for LeBron James, for the Spurs, and maybe most of all, basketball.
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