In My Opinion

Burden finally lifted for Pat Riley, LeBron James and Miami Heat

 

dlebatard@miamiherald.com

The champion architect smells like winning again as he emerges from the partying private suite, his white Armani shirt soaked in 2003 Dom Perignon and the scent of expensive cigars.

"This buys us our freedom," Pat Riley says with a smile. "The things that locked them up? They evaporated tonight. Now we grow. Now we evolve. Now comes the fun. This finally allows these players to be free."

This is not the finish, see? This is but the beginning. The champion architect did not put this together for just one night like this, no matter how loud and wonderful it was. Riley is greedy like that, and insatiable. A quarter-century ago, a generation ago, wearing sunglasses and slick hair as the fashion-model coach of the Lakers, Riley guaranteed a repeat championship while stepping to the microphone at the parade to celebrate the first. And now, even in the middle of this celebration that took two suffering years to arrive in Miami, as cars honk on the streets outside the arena and champagne spritzes in every direction, he's already looking beyond this celebration, dreaming about how his new champions will play now that they are finally unburdened. LeBron James was damn near unprecedented while cloaked in doubt this postseason. Imagine what he'll be now that he knows he's better than everyone else and finally has the crown to prove it.

One word to describe the last two years, Pat?

"Harrowing," he says. "Every single night, I took the losses personally. These guys took less money to come here because of promises we made them. I don't think I could have looked them in the eye if we didn't win the championship. The idea of that actually made me sick."

Nearby, James has misplaced his Finals MVP trophy, the waves of happiness that engulfed him at the end somehow sweeping it away to parts unknown. "Anybody find my trophy?" James keeps shouting to helpers and executives amid the celebratory bedlam, between interviews and hugs, as a panicked search breaks out around him.

You'd think he wouldn't let it out of his grip or sight, given how hard and long he worked for it, but it was not even the only treasure misplaced in this post-midnight Miami madness. Nick Arison, the owner's son, the team's CEO, lost his 2006 championship ring somehow in all the jubilance, dropped somewhere amid the dancing feet in the puddles of champagne that soaked the locker room. Riley has made a lot of parties like this happen over a lifetime, cars honking in the streets, a city floating off the ground. Pretty amazing when you consider that, just seven games ago, everybody was firing his coach and trading his players and wondering if the blueprint was flawed.

But LeBron James grew in these Finals, into the wrecking ball everybody had been waiting to see in the playoffs. The Heat front office badgered him all of last year to get in the post, but he needed to be humbled before accepting the guidance, and he ravaged the Thunder with his force around the rim. You should have heard what James said to his teammates in the privacy of the timeout huddle before this clinching game. "They have no idea what they are about to get," he said of Oklahoma City. "They have no idea." What they got was the end of the season on James' first triple double of the year, his 13 assists opening up the game for teammates like Mike Miller, who picked a pretty good time to make seven of eight three-pointers.

The smile on Miller's face afterward was toothy and permanent. It is also one of the few parts on his body that works correctly. Asked how he was able to push through the pain and the wincing to score more points than he has all season, Miller said, "That trophy in there. We love each other on this team. We really do. That makes it easy to sacrifice."

For the record, somebody finally located the Finals MVP trophy for James, and the misplaced ring of the owner's son. But the treasure chest was overflowing in Miami as a silenced America watched in awe and had to wonder what the champion architect's team might do now that it is free.

Remember James' introduction here?

The one that has been mocked for two poisonous years?

He was asked about championships, plural. And, giddy off the night's high and a new beginning, he said, "Not one, not two, not three...."

That stopped being a national joke Thursday night.

Now it sounds like something between a warning and a threat.

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