In my opinion

Greg Cote: With Game 7 of NBA Finals, now comes all that matters

WEB VOTE Which former Heat player would you have loved to see on this current team in his prime?

Can your pounding heart and racing mind stand one more of these, South Florida? Will your boss tolerate another couple days of frazzled distraction and low productivity?

The Heat and its gut-wrenched fans survived one of the most important nights in franchise history here Tuesday night, survived one of the most pressure-drenched occasions we have ever seen in South Florida sports – and yes, survived is the word.

Now comes the big game.

Now comes all that matters.

The appetizer was enough to churn the stomach and leave it in knots.

What’s left, what’s next, will leave you either feeling so satisfied you can barely believe it, or so empty that you ache.

Miami rallied desperately to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 103-100 in overtime here Tuesday to push these NBA Finals all the way to the end, and I’m not sure if the fans spilling in the deep night of Miami past midnight were closer to exhilarated, or simply exhausted.

Or maybe just spent. Or numb.

“It was by far the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” said a pretty fair witness by the name of LeBron James. “The emotions. The roller coaster. Just our mental toughness to make it look like the game was almost out of our hands, and then to be victorious.”

This postseason run has embodied all of that. It has been draining, an undulating drama of building emotion. It isn’t always easy being a fan, is it?

Now comes one of the rarest delights in basketball: a Finals Game 7, only the sixth one of these the NBA has had since 1985.

“Best two words in team sports,” as coach Erik Spoelstra put it. “Game 7.”

Especially when you work like the Heat did to get to it.

If what we just saw to get to Thursday wasn’t a sporting miracle, it was close enough for delirious, swooning Miami.

The Heat trailed by 10 points entering the fourth quarter. It looked like the end of it all. Discreetly, NBA officials had begun preparing for the postgame championship ceremony – the one that would happen Tuesday only if the Spurs were the winners.

That annoyed Heat players.

It should have.

“That pissed me off,” said Chris Bosh.

“It kind of did the same to all of us,” said LeBron. “That’s why you play the game ‘til the final buzzer.”

Around that time something absolutely remarkable happened to change everything.

LeBron James happened.

He played the first three quarters struggling and frustrated. He was 3-for-12 shooting. It was shades of his failed Finals in 2011 vs. Dallas, and you know that his national media critics were sharpening knives.

Then he took over the game.

Then he saved the season.

Then he saved everything.

“It’s a terrible burden for one guy,” said Ray Allen.

Suddenly, LeBron was the MVP he is, the best player in the sport, in his prime, in his element, in his zone.

He scored 18 points in the telling fourth quarter and overtime. At one point his trademark headband was knocked off. No matter. What he was doing when it mattered most replaced the headband with a halo.

“If we were going to go down now, tonight, we’re gonna do it with me leaving everything on the floor,” James said afterward. “I think losing the headband at that point was the least of my worries.”

(A Twitter site paying homage to LeBron’s headband bloomed. It had approached 5,000 followers when last I checked).

We have seen LeBron’s heroics and unparalleled skill so much in his three seasons here.

But sometimes he still wows you.

“An absolute desperation and will,” Spoelstra described James’ late game-changing burst. “To do it on both ends, covering Tony Parker … he gave us that life when we were down by 10.”

Said Spurs star Tim Duncan, of James: “He found a way to put his team over the top. There’s no other way to put it.”

It wasn’t just LeBron, who finished with 32 points and a triple-double, adding 11 assists and 10 rebounds. Ray Allen hit a tying 3-point shot with 5.2 seconds left (“Something I’ll remember for a long time,” he said). Mario Chalmers was huge early, and scored 20. Chris Bosh had only 10 points but had 11 rebounds and two huge late blocked shots.

All of the pronouncements enveloping this game were grave or grandiose. It was called judgment day, a defining moment. It was couched as dynasty-or-bust. It was seen as the night that would shape LeBron’s legacy and steer the future of the Big 3 in Miami.

It lived up to the hype as surely one of the great Finals games, elimination games, in league history.

And all of it swung right in the end for Miami, offering a profound relief that will be short-lived, that will last only until the next game.

The Spurs’ Manu Ginobili described his team as “devastated” by seeing its championship slip away late. That’s understandable. It was 1978 when a visiting team last won a Game 7 in the NBA Finals.

Miami is now 7-0 after losses in this postseason and has won 13 in a row overall after losing.

This is a team that responds well to adversity.

It did again Tuesday when doing so was an absolute must, and when fatigue was fighting every player on the floor.

“We were not only taking the tank all the way down to ‘E,’” said LeBron, “but also using the reserve tank.”

It was simply one of the greatest games and greatest triumphs we have ever seen in local sports.

Now all they have to do is do it again.

There was an interesting, telling little give and take by Wade and James in the interview room after the Game 5 loss in San Antonio. They’d been doing interviews separately lately but happened to be at each other’s elbow that night.

It was mentioned how Miami lost a Game 6 on its home floor to fall short to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, the first year of the Big 3. Heat players endured the indignity of the Mavericks celebrating on their own court that year.

“We’re a better team now,” Wade had said, with certainty.

“We’re going to see,” added James, with a small smile.

They proved Tuesday night they ARE a better team than they were.

Now all they have to do is prove it one more time, on Thursday night.

When it matters even more.

When it is ALL that matters.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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