Welcome, South Florida, to the gates of sports heaven. Immortality is one win away. This is Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
With one basketball game, the 2012-13 Heat, in its 25th season as a franchise, has the chance to go down as a back-to-back NBA champion and one of the best teams in Miami sports history.
So much has happened already to set this team apart. It won a franchise record 66 games in a sparkling regular season that included a 27-game winning streak. LeBron James won his second consecutive MVP Award and fourth in five years. The Heat outslugged the Indiana Pacers with a Game 7 victory in the Eastern Conference finals and willed itself to this point by surviving elimination in Game 6 of the Finals.
“Hasn’t been many people to win back-to-back championships,” James said. “It’s so hard. It’s the hardest thing. I said last year it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, winning my first. Last year don’t even come close to what we’ve gone through in this postseason and in these Finals.”
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And now this, the ultimate challenge, Game 7 of the Finals against a Spurs team that has never lost — never even trailed — in a Finals series since it drafted Tim Duncan in 1997.
No fewer than seven future Hall of Famers, but probably more, will share the court Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena for a place in history.
“As a competitor you love it because you know you have an opportunity, and it’s up to you,” said Heat guard Ray Allen, a first ballot shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. “We have a chance in our building to make something great. All of our legacies are tied to this moment, to this game.”
It was Allen’s three-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation of Game 6 that forced overtime and kept the series alive for the Heat when so much hope, and many more fans, had already raced out of the doors.
A quick note to the fans: Stay inside the building this time. Hundreds of discouraged Heat supporters left Game 6 with the home team down by five points with 28.2 seconds left in regulation. When the game turned, the deserters weren’t allowed back in the building.
“For all those fans that stayed, thank you,” Mario Chalmers said. “To the fans that left, maybe you’ll stay in Game 7.”
A second chance
The stunning preamble of Game 6 was defined by magic. Game 7 will be about constitution.
“I think it’s kind of like you have a second chance on life,” Bosh said of forcing Game 7 with a dramatic overtime victory. “You’re not going to waste it. We were revived. We were dead, and we brought ourselves back to life. And we’re happy to be in the situation.
“We know we still have a lot more work to do — that just to be here, we’re going to play, I think, the best basketball we’ve ever played together.”
Who will grow stronger under pressure? Who will wilt and fade? Who will rise above the game, stand victorious on the podium and raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy? Who will sink into oblivion as an also-ran, which unfairly or not, engulfs the loser?
More than three years ago now, James signed with the Heat to win multiple championships. He shouted his intentions, without reservation, before the first game of the Big Era was ever played. On Monday, as if it needed repeating, James reminded everyone of what exactly is at stake.
“I only came here — my only goal is to win championships,” James said. “I said it, this is what I came here for. This is what I wanted to be a part of this team for.”
James spent the eve before what he called, possibly, the biggest game of his career, with his family and friends. His old high school buddies are in town.
He joked about watching SpongeBob SquarePants with his kids the night before the game. But his mind never truly left the arena after Game 6.
He scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime after the Heat trailed by 10 points to begin the final period of regulation.
“I want to go down as one of the greatest,” James said. “I want our team to go down as one of the greatest teams.
“And we have an opportunity to do that.”
Down to the wire
The Heat hasn’t won back-to-back games since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. That’s no longer a trend to worry about, says Dwyane Wade, who predicted Wednesday that Game 7 “will be to the very last second.
“The reason this series hasn’t had a lot of consistency in the sense of teams winning two games in a row is because there are two good teams,” Wade said. “Two great coaches, coaching staffs, and credit to everyone in this series for that.
“So I think — I know that [Game 7] will go down as one of the best final games that’s been seen. But I think this series will go down as being one of the most competitive, bizarre series that’s been seen.
“So this is what you pay for to watch. You pay to watch two great teams battle to the very, very end, and that’s what we’ll do.”