In so many ways, and for so many reasons, the NBA Finals matchup between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs — the last in David Stern’s run as NBA commissioner — had to come down to a decisive Game 7.
These franchises have been among the most properly managed and consistently competitive over the past few years. They’ve claimed six of the past 13 NBA championships. And the first six games have been so unpredictable, off-beat and exciting that they’ve urged a desire for at least more slugfest.
Duncan and James, two former No. 1 overall picks taken six years apart, are currently in different stages of likely Hall of Fame careers, but they are both greedy and desperate to keep winning. Duncan has more NBA championships than James (4-1) and James has more regular season MVP awards than Duncan (4-2), but Duncan has more Finals MVPs (3-1).
This is that rare time in the post-Michael Jordan era when two highly decorated and extremely accomplished titans have been able to square off on the NBA’s grandest stage.
Kobe Bryant has won five championships and came closest to meeting up against peers when he matched up against a former regular season MVP (Kevin Garnett) and a former Finals MVP (Paul Pierce) three years ago, when the Los Angeles Lakers edged the Celtics in seven games.
But for the most part, the Finals don’t always provide individual stars on equally great footing surrounded by quality teams. Shaquille O’Neal faced Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki on his way to a four titles, but Iverson was the only member of that quartet to win a regular season MVP before the Finals matchup.
Bryant never got a dream duel against James — despite Nike’s best wishes — and his first non-Shaq-assisted title came against a not-ready Dwight Howard.
Duncan defeated an overmatched teams from the New York metro area with limited star power (the Knicks and Nets), then fended off a solid team in Detroit before knocking off a not-ready James when he played for Cleveland in 2007. James claimed his first championship last season against a young Oklahoma City team led by the not-ready Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
When he told James six years ago that the league would be his one day, Duncan couldn’t have predicted how or if their paths would cross again — or how difficult it would be to hold him off the second time around. Duncan came determined to knock out James in Game 6 on Tuesday, but James had more in reserve to will his team to a stunning overtime finish.
Though neither star has been at his best through the series, the influence that they have had on their teammates with some consistently determined play has been undeniable.
“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.”
James stacked the deck more in his favor when he linked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a controversial move that has resulted in three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. His prediction of multiple championships will continue to haunt him until he gets not one, not two, not three…
“I need it because I want it, and I only came here ‑‑ my only goal is to win championships. This is what I wanted to be a part of this team for,” James said. “I’m not going to cut no corners. I’m not going to cheat the game. I’m going to work for it. We’re not entitled to win it. We have to work for it. So that’s what I’m here for.”
James is still in his prime, hardly in a time when his legacy needs to be on the line every time he steps on the court. The criticism of every mistake and the over-the-top praise for every great accomplishment can be frustrating, but James denied that the non-stop referendums on his career aren’t as painful as they appear to be.
“That’s okay. It won’t stop me from loving the game, playing at a high level, doing it for my teammates, putting that uniform on,” James said. “First of all, I mean, I’m blessed, man. I don’t even know how I got here. I wasn’t supposed to be in the NBA, if you go by statistics and things of me growing up where I grew up. Every time I go into my locker room and see the ‘James’ on the back of an NBA jersey, I’m like, ‘Wow.’ No criticism can deter me from playing this game because of that. I’m not supposed to be here. The fact that I’m doing what I’m doing and doing it for my teammates, it’s all that matters.”
Duncan has extended his career beyond the usual expiration date, and his legacy is intact, regardless of the outcome — but he only prefers one.
“You know what, it’s all about just winning the title,” Duncan said. “It’s not about situation or what has led up to it. It’s a great story for everybody else, but we’re here for one reason. One reason only: It’s to try to win this game.”
Duncan didn’t accept fewer minutes or allow the offense to become more perimeter oriented in the past few seasons for any other reason than to possibly add more jewelry to the collection. A fifth championship would tie Duncan with Bryant and continue the debate over which superstar was most dominant in the post-Jordan era. Duncan said he is too busy to worry about his legacy while continues to compete for something more tangible.
“It will be something great to look back on and to look at when I’m done. But in the heat of things, as I go through my career and through these games, that’s just not anything I ever look up or think about or anything else,” Duncan said. “Will it matter at some point? Maybe it will, but I have nothing to do with how people see me at that point. I’m just here to enjoy it and do the best I can.”
After winning four titles in his first 10 seasons, Duncan had a six-year drought before getting the chance at another and wants to put the late-game hiccup in Game 6 behind him. He likely has one last shot.
“We know what we have to do. We know the opportunity we let slip through our fingers. And we’re not going to hang our head and dwell on that,” Duncan said. “When that ball goes up, we’ll all be ready.”
MORE FROM THE POST ON THE NBA FINALS
— Mike Wise: It all comes down to one game.
— Last road team to win a Game 7: the Bullets.
— Jason Reid: No Game 8 in the NBA Finals.
— Game 6: Heat pull off a stunner.