As a boy, LeBron James pretended he won an NBA championship.
By the time he was a teenager, a title was a foregone conclusion.
But for James the pro superstar, an NBA title has been like a tempting piece of fruit, dangling just beyond his reach.
Last season, his first as part of the Big 3 in Miami, winning the trophy became an obligation, a chore, an albatross around his neck.
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But this season, James sought and rediscovered his love of the game. Joy makes dreams possible.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, James played with an unburdened heart and soared, leading the Miami Heat to a cathartic 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was his first championship, the second for the Heat.
Finally, in his ninth NBA season, James embraced the golden trophy. Instead of carrying the world on his shoulders he held it in his hands.
He could look at his reflection and see a champion, not a choker – the label his critics had attached to him like a scarlet letter.
Nicknamed King James, at last he had his crown.
As confetti fell and fans danced inside AmericanAirlines Arena, James took off his headband and hopped up and down, waving his arms and smiling like he has not smiled in a long while.
“It’s about damn time,” he said. “Last year I played with a lot of hate instead of a lot of love and passion, and I got back to that this year.”
James, so passive and bewildered in last year’s Finals collapse against Dallas, scored 26 points, snatched 11 rebounds and dished 13 assists in Thursday’s clincher. The player who has been the object of intense derision since he left the Cleveland Cavaliers, was unanimous winner of the Bill Russell Finals MVP award.
“I made a difficult decision to leave Cleveland,” James said. “I’ve been through a lot but this is definitely the way it pays off. The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals. It humbled me a lot. I was going to have to change as a basketball player and a person to get what I wanted.”
The 4-1 series score was deceiving because each of the first four games came down to the closing minutes, a rebound here, a rim-rattler there. But in Game 5, which the Heat called their Game 7, the Heat broke the Thunder. It was clear from the outset that James and the Heat would not bow to pressure. Each time the Thunder surged, the Heat responded, and in the third quarter, the Heat’s seven-point lead fattened to 25 in four-and-a-half minutes.
James and Dwyane Wade departed the game with 3:01 left to a standing ovation from chanting spectators and hugs from their teammates.
James is constantly compared to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, even though they couldn’t be more different in playing style and personality. James sincerely wants to make his teammates better. He’d rather have a triple-double than 50 points. Many of the record-tying number of three-pointers made by the Heat on Thursday (14) were set up by James, who drew the double team defense and zipped passes to his shooters. He’s played and defended every position during the playoffs.
He said the criticism that bothered him most was the perception that he is selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“At the same time I used it as motivation,” he said.
When he wasn’t passing or rebounding, James bulled his way through a thicket of elbows and hands and sank layup after layup. Unstoppable, even with fingers in his face and shoulders in his chest.
On one spectacular play, he launched from the free throw line, twisted his body around one defender, then shifted in the other direction and spooned in a fingerroll. He plucked the fruit.
This title for the Heat should be savored as a well-earned reward, not brandished as a symbol of revenge.
No, this wasn’t about silencing the critics because listening to the critics was what got James in a funk in the first place.
Last season was too much about the outside noise. It was about “trying to prove people wrong,” James admitted.
This season was about the huddle, and what was said inside. Corny as it sounds, it was about trust, as Coach Erik Spoelstra would put it in his guru-speak.
A splintered group of stars became a true team in its second season. The Heat relied less on one-on-one isolation play and more on telepathic cooperation.
You could see the culmination in Game 5. Six players scored in double figures, four with 20 or more points. Mike Miller, creakier than the Tin Man, a trainer’s all-you-can-eat buffet of aches and pains, came off the bench to swish seven three-pointers. Shane Battier played his best in the last two weeks of the season, scoring three-pointers, drawing charges, guarding bigger opponents. Wade, declared washed-up after his three-point game in Indianapolis, won his second title and finished with 20 points, three blocks, eight rebounds. Mario Chalmers, maligned as the weak link at point guard, saved his best for the last two games. Chris Bosh came back from injury just in time to push the Heat past the Celtics and Thunder.
When the Heat swamped the Thunder in the third quarter and Chalmers began rousing the crowd, James crooked his finger like a teacher and told Chalmers to cease. Premature celebration of title(s) is a bad idea, as he knows all too well.
The trophy brought equal parts ecstasy and relief.
It was validation of Wade’s vision. Validation of Pat Riley’s blueprint. Validation of Spoelstra’s coaching ability.
When the Heat fell behind 2-1 to Indiana and 3-2 to Boston, fans were calling for Riley to remove Spoelstra and take over. Immediately.
“Stay the course,” became the mantra of Spoelstra, who never lost his cool.
The trophy brings validation of The Decision. It’s the first step in validating The Prediction of multiple titles.
“There was so much hurt and embarrassment from last season,” Wade said. “From Christmas day we were on a mission.”
Bosh, who collapsed in tears in the hallway to the locker room after the Heat lost to Dallas last June, said the “gut-wrenching” memory plagued him daily. He purged it Thursday.
James will be remembered not only for his 13 games of 30-plus points in the playoffs, but for his possessed 45-point, 15-rebound rescue of his team in Game 6 in Boston and his three-point shot on knotted, cramping muscles in Game 4 here.
James wore a mouthguard inscribed with XVI – 16 in Roman numerals – the number of victories the Heat needed in the playoffs. That piece of plastic is destined for the Hall of Fame.
James had to wait, learn and grow up. The Thunder, populated by 20-somethings, the second-youngest squad in Finals history, must wait now, but watch out – against the quicksilver Russell Westbrook and the gracefully deadly Kevin Durant, this could be the start of a beautiful rivalry.
James got to the free throw line only 20 times in the 2011 Finals. He doubled that number this time around. Last year he scored a total of 18 points in six Finals fourth quarters. This year he scored 34 in five.
Heat fans were cheering from the balconies of the condo towers across the street. Buses around town displayed “Go Heat!” on their route signs. Honking cars clogged Biscayne Boulevard, which will soon be the stage for a parade.
There was delirium on Ocean Drive, satisfaction in Seattle, bitterness in Cleveland, pride in Akron and disappointment – buoyed by hope – in Oklahoma City.
Many experts picked the Heat to lose to the Thunder. Last season the Heat would have absorbed the doubt, stewed in it, resented it, believed it. This season they ignored it.
Stay the course.