MIAMI – Amazingly, the tombstone on the Miami Heat was being chiseled 18 days ago when they dropped a 94-90 home decision to the Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and were one loss from elimination. And the reputation of LeBron James as a talented wunderkind unable to propel his team to greatness no longer an unfair assessment. It was reality.
On Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat broke the hearts of those NBA traditionalists who never wanted such a team compiled through free-agent dollars and the lure of a sexy city to win a championship. And James broke the hearts of those who wished him nothing but playoff failures after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Heat in such a controversial and publicized fashion.
The Heat are NBA champions, primarily because of the heroics of James, who scored 45 points in Game 6 against the Celtics, and then catapulted his team into an impressive title run that culminated with a 121-106 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
Miami won the series four games to one, pummeling Oklahoma City in the second half, helped by the 3-point shooting unheralded Mike Miller. James finished his masterful run with a triple double – 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists -- while Miller canned seven 3-pointers to finish off the overwhelmed Thunder.
After a series of postseason failures, his much-criticized free-agent decision and playing into a villain role last season, James appeared to reassess his approach and emerged as the Heat’s leader, avoiding the late-game failures that plagued him during last year’s Finals. James was considered one of the game’s greatest players never to win a title, and it took five years to erase that tag.
James left the game with 3:01 left, looking to embrace anyone within arms’ distance. He then hugged ripped off his customary headband, hugged assistant coach Bob McAdoo, who like James, was a prolific player who did not win an NBA title until his 10th season.
“I’m happy I was able to do it the right way,” he said, with the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy on his right and the MVP Trophy on his left. “I was playing to prove people wrong last year. People would say I was selfish and that got to me, that got to me a lot because I know that this is a team game. All last year, I tried to prove people wrong and it wasn’t me. Basically I was fighting against myself.
“I knew I was going to have to change as a basketball player and change as a person to get what I wanted and it happened just one year later. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Since I picked up a basketball at 9 years old, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the five games.
Meanwhile, three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who singlehandedly tried competing with the Heat with 32 points, hugged his parents in the tunnel, crying.
“It hurts. It hurts, man,” said Durant, 23. “We’re all like brothers on this team and it just hurts to go out like this. We made it to the Finals, which was cool for us, but we just didn’t want to make it there. Unfortunately we lost, so it’s tough. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
The third quarter was simply a microcosm of the series, with the Heat showing more poise and making bigger plays than their opponent, and the arena turned into one beach party more than 12 minutes before the final buzzer.
The key sequence occurred with 7:21 left and the Thunder having cut the deficit to 69-62 on a Durant jumper. As Mario Chalmers dribbled to the sideline to call a timeout, he and Durant got tangled and the two pushed each other.
No technicals were called but Juwan Howard raced over from the bench to grab Chalmers and the intensity rose, at least for Miami. The Heat steamrolled Oklahoma City with a game-defining 21-3 run, using Chris Bosh’s mismatch against Kendrick Perkins and some acrobatic plays from Dwyane Wade and yet another 3-pointer from Miller for a 90-65 lead.
The Thunder were exhausted and bewildered, unable to make any impact despite the obvious athleticism advantage. Durant tried to carry the club on his bony shoulders, but as usual he got little help. Russell Westbrook missed 16 of his first 20 shots while the Thunder besides Durant were just 23 of 63 from the field.
“Their defense is really good,” Durant said. “Those guys are really good over there. I didn’t want to admit it during the series, but now that it’s over, those guys are really good.”
The game was essentially done with the Heat leading 95-71, only leaving the countdown to James’s first NBA title and verifying Pat Riley’s decision to bring together three all-stars and surround them with solid but not spectacular players, hoping it would work.
“Man this process is unbelievably hard,” Wade said. “And I don’t care who you put on a team. To be a champion would be the hardest thing you do in sports. Two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was. But we had to go through what we had to through last year. We needed to. And as much as it hurt, we had to go through pain and suffering.”
James has been in a rather reflective mood the closer he approached a title. He said he altered his personality, went back to basics and worked feverishly to improve his game after a self-imposed two-week exile after losing the NBA Finals last June.
“It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person. I’m just happy that I was able to be put back in this position. I trusted my instincts. I trusted my habits that I built over the years and I just got back to being myself, and I didn’t care too much about what anyone said about me.
“That’s for you guys to write, to say if I’m the best player in the league or the No. 1 player in the league. All I know is I’m a champion and that’s all that matters.”