Exhausted Heat players and drained Heat fans found the energy to celebrate Miami here Thursday as midnight neared, a team and a city locked in an emotional group hug as confetti fell in the downtown bayside arena and merrily honking car horns played a symphony outside.
Game 7 was done, and everything was won.
There was the best kind of bedlam inside the building and out, but amid all of the happy chaos and noise something quiet and invisible but undeniable was happening.
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All of the biggest, grandest words in sports were rising up to embrace the Heat here Thursday night.
“I want our team to go down as one of the greatest teams ever,” LeBron James had said.
They got there Thursday night.
“I came here to win championships,” LeBron had said — plural.
He got there Thursday night.
A second NBA Finals championship in a row separates you, distinguishes you, and for this Miami team, especially, it means everything.
It validates once and for all LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland and underlines his place in the sport’s history. It verifies that the Big 3 blueprint has succeeded. And it suggests that a three-peat is hardly an outlandish dream now for a team that surely will enter next season as the favorite to win again.
Miami outlasted the San Antonio Spurs here, 95-88, on a taut, tense, thrilling night befitting a Game 7.
A loss would have derailed everything for the Heat. It would have meant two Finals losses in the three seasons of the Big 3. To many of the steadfast doubters, critics and haters, that would have equated to failure.
LeBron and the Heat would have none of it.
James played like the league MVP he is, scoring 37 points with 12 rebounds, including a jumper and two free throws in the crucial final minute. He was voted Finals MVP. It better have been unanimous.
“It was time,” Coach Erik Spoelstra explained James’ huge finale. “He rises to the occasion.”
James was asked about enduring all of the hyper-scrutiny upon him.
“I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city,” he said as the confetti fell and the fans swooned. “I’m not even supposed to be here.”
Three players in NBA history have won NBA titles and MVP awards two straight seasons: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and now James.
He had help.
Dwyane Wade added 23 points Thursday, and Shane Battier was huge off the bench with 18 points on six three-point baskets.
On a night when Chris Bosh, the third of the Big 3, was in foul trouble and held scoreless, James and Wade made up for him, as did Battier.
One year ago, the Heat’s first Big 3-era championship was about relief as much as anything. A burden was lifted. Those critics, doubters and haters who wanted so badly for Miami to fail so badly — they had been silenced.
There was a broader aim this time, a dynasty and failure both in play at opposite extremes.
It was the perfect, proper exclamation to a season that featured a club-record 66 regular season victories including a history-challenging 27 in a row — all of which would have been largely spoiled by a Game 7 loss.
This night would be all or nothing, heaven or hell. A repeat title and budding dynasty, or a loss that so many would equate with flat-out failure.
Heat fans must have felt as if they’d jumped off a bridge on a bungee cord, not sure if they’d bounce back up and feel that exhilaration, or if the cord would break.
“We have a chance in our building to make something great happen, and that’s all you can ask,” Ray Allen had said before the game. “Legacies are tied to the moment, to this game.”
Then Allen said something phrased a bit oddly, but accurate.
“Forever will remember this,” he said.
This was the biggest home game in South Florida professional sports history, and if it wasn’t, the company is select. No home game in the Heat’s 2006, 2011 or 2012 Finals was supercharged, as all-or-nothing like this one.
You’d mention Oct. 26, 1997, a Marlins World Series Game 7 win over Cleveland. You could mention any of the six AFC Championship Games the Dolphins have hosted with a Super Bowl berth at stake. But those were just about GETTING to the big game. At the college level you’d mention UM’s 1983 football national championship won in the Orange Bowl. This was as big as any of them.
No fans left early Thursday night, as they’d been criticized for doing late in the Game 6 comeback. This time, there was a championship coronation to see.
Heck, these fans would have stayed till breakfast.
Who wanted this night to end? This ride?
For Heat players and likely many fans, too, the hours that followed this game would be full of celebrating, or of up-all-night second guessing. As Wade said before the game, “I won’t get no sleep tonight one way or another.”
This was the night the Heat became the most accomplished franchise in South Florida sports history, the night that notion of Miami as a basketball town gained some mathematical backing.
The Heat’s third championship (2006, 2012, 2013) tops the Dolphins’ two Super Bowl wins (1972, 1973) and Marlins’ two World Series (1997, 2003).
The faded Dolphins are trying to be relevant again. The Marlins are surrounded by fan anger and disenchantment.
The Heat are reigning in every sense, with LeBron leading the parade.
He came in averaging 33.8 points in career Game 7’s, and 31.5 in elimination games. Both were all-time NBA bests, and all he did was top them both.
“All the sacrifices we made every single day, it’s about to pay off,” LeBron had told his teammates in a pregame speech.
It sounded like a promise. LeBron James made it come true.