LeBron James heads to NBA Finals playing best basketball of his life

Adrian WojnarowskiThe Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

MIAMI – These Miami Heat were constructed to crumble this proud, old champion, and now that was happening in the ferocious final minutes of Game 7: jab, jab, jab and finally a left hook to deliver the Boston Celtics onto their backs. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. Here were the Heat’s Big Three chasing the Celtics’ out of the gym, out of the season and maybe out of those Boston uniforms. James. Wade. Bosh. Together, they were downright devastating in the final minutes of this Eastern Conference-clinching victory. No fourth quarter – no NBA Finals – for old men.

In the end, hell’s fury had come crashing down on these Celtics, and this conference final series ended with a 101-88 victory the way it was always supposed to end: With yesterday’s champion, Boston, left in the wake, and the NBA’s gathering storm, Oklahoma City, awaiting in the NBA Finals. And yet for all of the Miami comebacks in these playoffs – down to the Indiana Pacers and pushed to the brink of elimination by Boston – the burden and undertaking of these Heat doesn’t allow for bows and bouquets. The Heat set course on a journey with a singular, undeniable destination: NBA championship or unadulterated bust. A different standard for these Heat, but hardly unreasonable considering the unprecedented star power and the defiant declaration of winning two fistfuls of titles.

"You play and you try to get back to this moment again,” Wade said late Saturday. "…So you can in a sense redeem yourself."

There’s no redemption for these Heat, just the living, breathing, bleeding illustration of that old Pat Riley truism: There’s winning and there’s misery. In the history of the NBA, there’s no failure that resonates so profoundly, so deeply, as Miami Heat failure. They won’t be considered gallant for losing to the Thunder in the NBA Finals because nine seasons and three MVP trophies and a free-agent folly won’t let James get off so easily.

James is so easily playing the best basketball of his life – averaging 33.6 points in the conference finals – and this collision course with Kevin Durant is the twentysomething showdown the league desperately wanted in a season the thirtysomething stars have crumpled away, leaving the sport to the kids in the black-rimmed glasses with no lenses.

"He’s playing at a historic level during the playoffs," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He is pushing himself beyond his limits."

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Twenty-eight straight points in the fourth quarter on Saturday night out of James, Wade and Bosh, and Miami needed the genius of that final, ferocious push when Boston kept responding with big basket after big basket. Eight minutes left, and the Celtics had a lead on Miami. Only, they never had a handle on Game 7 – never found a way to counter what Bosh brought back to these Heat.

“They had to play great to beat us,” Celtics president Danny Ainge said in a quiet corner of the arena. “And they did, they were great – especially Bosh at the end.”

The Celtics have been so good for the Heat, testing them in ways they needed to be tested. Boston hardened the Heat for a return to the Finals, taught them about toughness, togetherness and a relentless resolve.

“You can never relax on the court when you’re competing against those guys," James said. "You can never feel comfortable. You always feel on edge when you go against them. This is their chemistry that they built over the year. It’s like no other team that I’ve ever faced in the postseason."

When it was over, Spoelstra would concede Rivers had "pushed me to be a better coach," and that the Celtics had been the competitor that "pushed us and bended us where we’ve had to improve." Only now, this is irrelevant unless it’s hardened these Heat to be NBA champions. The Thunder aren’t going away for a long, long time in the Western Conference, and this could be an East-West showdown for years to come. For Miami, there’s no time, no patience, to wait on the parade. The Heat weren’t designed for a long, mapped-out championship chase, but rather a sprint to the stage to hold that Lawrence O’Brien trophy.

Kevin Durant has been superb in these playoffs , perhaps the best pure scorer in the sport now. Yet, he doesn’t dominate the game in all the ways that James does, doesn’t control it with scoring and passing, rebounding and defense. Beyond scoring, Durant dabbles in everything else. James has perfected the gift of understanding exactly what these Heat need out of him in every circumstance, every game.

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Bosh makes James even more dangerous for Durant and the Thunder. When Kevin Garnett tried to slough off Bosh in the fourth quarter of Game 7, James made him pay with the pass. He found Bosh for passes that delivered the Heat 3-pointer daggers and baseline jumpers. For all the talk about James in the scoring zone with his 45 points in Game 6, make no mistake: There’s a far bigger, far more complete game that’s evolved within him.

"You have to credit all the times that he just thinks about what happened last year," Bosh said. "He thinks about how he can improve. And when that moment comes again, he had to seize it. We were in this moment again."

James’ performance was prodigious to beat Boston, but the moment still awaits him. This time, it won’t be the Dallas Mavericks with an understanding that 2011 was the final chance for Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to be a champions. No, this is different. Oklahoma City is brilliant, young and oozing talent deep into that roster. This time, the Heat have a different urgency, a different clock. Something of the way the best player in the world carries himself suggests that nine years and three MVPs and so many championship failures has delivered James to these NBA Finals with old man Riles’ words hanging heavy in his mind: There’s winning and there’s misery.

James knows what awaits him on the wrong side of these Finals, and everyone witnessed what happened when the Celtics pushed the Heat within 48 minutes of elimination, pushed James within 48 minutes of one more summer sentenced to basketball purgatory. James commandeered Games 6 and 7, the conference finals and, maybe most of all, his own fate.

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The Thunder come with athleticism and skill and talent that will challenge the Heat in such different ways than the Celtics did. Wade comes and goes in these playoffs, but James changes the dynamic of everything. "He is great for our game," Boston’s Keyon Dooling said. "He is our game."

When LeBron James finally wins his title, all the noise that comes in surround sound stops, and that’s something that he once never wanted. James loved the 24-hour news cycle to be all LeBron, all the time, but it finally wore on him. This season, he manages it so much better. Nevertheless, history will be the judge of his preparedness for this journey’s end in the NBA Finals. In the end, these Big Three crashed down on the Celtics like only greatness does in a Game 7, like how it was all scripted.

James declared these Heat destined for a fistful of rings, and nothing short of defeating the Thunder will be satisfactory. Old man Riles said it, and perhaps no player under his watch has ever understood these words on such a visceral, intimate level: There’s winning and there’s misery. As these NBA Finals come now, mostly there’s LeBron James and a championship burden that hangs over him like an anvil.

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