MIAMI — The San Antonio Spurs are partially responsible for the monster they created, the jump-shooting legend-in-the-making who needed to endure some early failure before he could emerge as champion. LeBron James learned from a humbling loss to Tim Duncan and the Spurs six years ago that he was going to need better players around him and that he needed to become a better jump shooter.
Thursday night, James got his long-sought redemption, hitting crucial jumper after crucial jumper – including the game-clincher with 27.8 seconds remaining – in a thrilling 95-88 victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals that gave the four-time most valuable player his second straight title in three seasons since he joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.
“It feels great,” James said. “This team is amazing. The vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true. To win back-to-back championships is an unbelievable feeling.”
James scored 37 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and willed his team to a win in a hotly contested battle that mirrored an intense series.
“He always rises to the occasion when it matters most, when the competition is the fiercest,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.
James, named the NBA MVP last month, became just the third player to win Finals MVP in consecutive seasons. The others: Bill Russell and Michael Jordan.
“LeBron was unbelievable,” Duncan said. “We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
For the third year in a row, the NBA championship was determined at AmericanAirlines Arena. Two years ago, the Heat succumbed to a more determined Dallas Mavericks team in six games and Bosh was so crushed that he collapsed on his walk to the locker room afterward. The upset loss fueled James to a dominant run through the Oklahoma City Thunder that allowed him to embrace the Larry O’Brien Trophy as Finals MVP for the first time in his highly scrutinized career.
Though he went on to win Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal last year, James was not absolved from the constant nit-picking and criticism of his every shortcoming or mis-step. James took the endless referendums on his legacy in stride and continued to push through an opponent that forced him to find another way to emerge victorious.
Points were at a premium after both teams spent the past two weeks learning every scheme tendency and weakness. The two teams fought through early nerves, missing shots and having sloppy possessions. Miami kept trying to deliver a knockout blow, but the Spurs refused to go away.
The Spurs repeatedly dared James to shoot, rather than let him attack the basket in his usual freight train style. With plenty of space to pull up, James answered the dare by making five three-pointers, even staring down the Spurs’ bench after dropping one of his three-pointers from the right corner in front of it.
Before the game, Wade, the man largely responsible for convincing James to join him in Miami, discussed how difficult this title run has been as he dealt with a bone bruise in his right knee that limited him to only a few productive bursts throughout the postseason. His leg woes only got worse in the previous game, when he banged his left knee in a collision with Manu Ginobili and was limited the rest of the way. He responded Thursday by scoring 23 points on his way to a third title in the past seven years with the Heat.
“Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. They played Hall of Fame basketball,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s some of the best basketball they both played at the same time throughout the entire playoffs from what I saw.”
The Heat also got some unlikely production from Shane Battier, who made six three-pointers – matching his total from the previous six games – and finished with 18 points. Spunky point guard Mario Chalmers added 14.
Duncan led the Spurs with 24 points and 12 rebounds but suffered his first Finals loss in five trips, coming so close to winning another ring two nights before and again failing to make a potential tying layup in the final minute. With the Heat leading 90-88, Ginboili (18 points) found Duncan near the basket for an apparent mismatch, but Duncan missed a short hook in lane over Battier, then tipped the ball over the rim before Bosh grabbed the rebound.
Duncan immediately buried his face into his jersey top and angrily rubbed his head a few times before James closed out the Spurs when he pulled up for a jumper over Kawhi Leonard that extended the lead to four points. James then intercepted a pass from Ginobili and made two free throws to put the game away.
“Making a bad decision down the stretch,” Duncan said. “Just unable to stop Dwyane and LeBron. Probably for me Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
After a devastating loss in Game 6 in which they blew a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left, the Spurs gathered at Popovich’s favorite Italian restaurant to discuss the loss. They attempted to put behind them how they were so close to winning a championship that the NBA staffers had brought out the yellow ropes along the baseline in preparation of a coronation.
Thursday, the ropes came out again, but not for San Antonio.
“In my case, I still have Game 6 in my head,” Ginobili said. “Being so close and feeling that you are about to grab a trophy, and then seeing it vanish away is very hard.”