“I’ll take your bet, and you’re going to regret, ’cos I’m the best that’s ever been.”
— The Devil Went Down to Georgia, The Charlie Daniels Band
Boil everything away — all the analysis and pronouncements, all the incessant talk of adjustments and matchups and everything crammed into a 24-hour news cycle that reset with another ridiculous message every day for the past two weeks. Make it all disappear and here’s what’s left:
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The best coach in the NBA dared the best player in the league to beat him, and the player did.
It was always an NBA Finals between Heat forward LeBron James and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Yes, plenty more was important and one player or coach does not a championship bring, but at the core of the series — the burning, swirling soul of everything — it was Popovich gambling that James couldn’t beat the Spurs in a seven-game series with his jump shot.
And, in the beginning, Popovich’s calculated bluff outfoxed the MVP. James folded his hand, giving away those trump cards — those efficient jumpers — he had worked so hard to obtain and made him next to unstoppable.
In Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, James retreated from Popovich’s challenge. He deferred smartly to wide-open teammates. He played the math while playing directly into Popovich’s defensive game plan. Those first two games, Popovich turned James into an older version, a less-versatile version, of himself — the James who reached the Finals in 2007 with the Cavaliers only to be swept away by Popovich and the Spurs.
The James that began the 2013 Finals wasn’t the same player who, a few months earlier, won his second consecutive MVP award by expanding his game to include a trusty midrange jumper and a reliable three-point shot.
“For 2 1/2 games I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, ‘OK, this is how they’re going to play me for the whole series,’ ” James said after it was all over. “I looked at all my regular-season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best midrange shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the three-point line.
“I just told myself why — don’t abandon what you’ve done all year. Don’t abandon now because they’re going under. Don’t force the paint. If it’s there, take it. If not, take the jumper. And I think the last … I did a good job in Game 4. Didn’t make as many shots as I would like to from the outside in Game 5, but I kept on getting into the rhythm of it. Just saying everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the offseason training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it.”
So it was that with 2:43 left in the second quarter of Game 7, James found himself wide open in the corner with the ball in his hands and the Heat leading 37-36. Spurs defender Kawhi Leonard positioned himself more than five feet away from James, cutting off his driving lane and begging him to shoot. James obliged and drilled his second three-pointer of the period directly in front of the Spurs’ bench.
And now freeze it.
The stare only lasted a second, but in that briefest of moments James shot a look at the Spurs’ bench that spoke volumes about the taproot dynamic of the series, the development of James as a player, his maturity as a person and the legend he is now positioned to become.
James glared at the Spurs’ bench and pushed all in. Time to let it ride.
“The saying ‘hard work pays off’ is a true testament of what happened [Thursday night],” James said.
Defeated and sitting in front of a postgame microphone, Popovich called James’ performance “Hall of Fame basketball.”
James finished with five three-pointers, making 3 of 4 attempts in a back-and-forth third quarter that featured five ties and four lead changes. In the second half, all seven of James’ field goals came from outside the paint, including the biggest one of all, a 19-footer with 27.9 seconds left that put the Heat ahead by four points.
“LeBron was unbelievable,” Spurs power forward Tim Duncan said. “He stepped up in this last game, and he made enough shots to make us change our defense over and over again. We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
On the biggest stage, in a “win-all-or-lose-everything” scenario, with a legacy in the balance, James reached a level of greatness only few have obtained in the game of basketball. His 37 points on the last night of the postseason was the most in a Game 7 of the Finals since Jerry West had 42 against Boston in 1969.
James began the Finals averaging 17.5 points in Games 1 and 2. He finished it going 23 of 49 from the field in Games 6 and 7 for an average of 34.5 points.
“I said before the series that I was a better player than I was the last time I faced the Spurs,” James said. “Didn’t look that way the first couple of games. But I stuck with it. Through all that adversity and throughout, I guess, the rhythm that I was in at that point, I just kept going. Just trusted all the work that I put into my game.”
In winning his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP Award, James now joins Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the only three players in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs and Finals MVPs.
“The story is still yet to be seen what he’s going to end up with, but right now he’s going to enjoy No. 2,” Dwyane Wade said. “Winning back-to-back, there’s not a lot of people who has done that. He’s a special player. We enjoy having him here. What he brings every night is unbelievable.”
And so begins James’ march toward history. He’s already one of the greatest players to ever play the game. That only leaves one obvious goal.
“And I will continue to work for that and continue to put on this uniform and be the best I can be every night,” James said.