MIAMI – LeBron James headed to Miami two summers ago, the most prized free agent in NBA history who we all assumed didn’t want to shoulder the fame and blame of being that lone special player mainly responsible for a franchise’s success — not to mention a Midwestern metropolis’s economy.
In hindsight, as the confetti rained at American Airlines Arena after midnight Friday morning and he held the gaudy gold trophy aloft, a champion at last, maybe the game’s greatest player just wanted to join a deep and, yes, balanced team, a team that could give him a euphoric night like this.
“You know, I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today,” James said an hour after the Heat had blown out Oklahoma City with a virtuouso team performance, winning the NBA Finals in five games. “You know, my dream has become a reality now; it’s the best feeling I ever had.”
His dream happened because five players and one basketball appeared to become one player and five basketballs. When LeBron and Dwyane Wade, who talked of “so much pain, so much hurt” from last season’s collapse in the Finals, finally checked out of this prolonged celebration that was Game 5, the crowd filling the arena showered them with a cacophony of sound. With 3 minutes 1 second left in this 121-106 rout, they embraced in the signature moment of their careers.
“The greatest moment of my life,” LeBron said as an enraptured gathering in white T-shirts roared louder.
He kept hugging everyone — especially the players not named Wade or Chris Bosh. Because he knew he wouldn’t have had this moment if he simply outplayed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, or because his numbers and his perseverance ended with him hoisting the Finals MVP trophy.
With 3:33 left, the window into Miami’s championship was clear. At the end of a Game 5 throttling of a team supposedly more complete and balanced than the Big-Three-and-Nobody-Else Heat, the ball began zipping around the perimeter — touch passes from Wade to LeBron, into the paint, into the corners. Until everybody touched the ball and it settled into Bosh’s soft hands just left of the free throw lines.
Square. Fire. Swish.
Four games to one, the best player in the game. Four games to one, the best and most surprising supporting cast in the game.
As the confetti kept coming down, as Miami owner Micky Arison lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy high and team President Pat Riley grabbed the microphone among the chanting and revelry, it was clear: LeBron finally had the players around him to be part of a title-winning team.
The biggest shocker of this series was that James Harden turned into a pumpkin, the Sixth Man of the Year struggling to score and make a difference in all five games. The Thunder role players were reduced to Derek Fisher chucking errant three-pointers and Nick Collison trying in vain to tip in missed shots.
LeBron’s supporting cast that was maligned for much of the past two years? Money. Absolute money.
Mike Miller could barely walk entering Game 5. Every limb wrapped in some fashion with surgical tape, he was literally fused together the past two weeks. Tutankhamun may have been embalmed with less cloth.
But he could still shoot. Oh, heavens could Mike Miller could still shoot.
Beautiful rainbows suddenly dropped through in both halves, as golden and timeless as if he was lighting up the Corn Palace in his native South Dakota or stroking jump shots for Florida more than a decade ago. After scoring a paltry four points and failing to make a three-pointer in the first four games of the series, he inexplicably nailed seven — seven! — from behind the arc in Game 5.
Twenty-three points in a closeout game — Mike Miller!
“You limped into the game, literally, when you checked in in the first quarter. How did you do that?” a reporter asked afterward.
“How did I limp?” Miller asked amid chuckles, adding he was tiring of visiting doctors all season.
The last long jumper dropped like a hammer on the Thunder as it fell behind by 30 points in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, 12 minutes that became more of a lengthy coronation than a competition.
There was Shane Battier, the best role player in the series — his shot-put three-pointers, that annoying face-guarding of Durant on so many possessions. If Harden declared himself open as he entered the arena like many gunners of great renown, Battier had to be obsessively getting in position for charges in his hotel room. He literally donated his body to the cause, and his crucial tip off a jump ball that he and Durant battled for at the end of Game 4 won Miami the possession and clinched a 3-1 series lead.
Mario Chalmers came in with a chip on his shoulder, almost angered that Oklahoma City’s role players were being judged as more reliable than Miami’s entering the series. When Durant was assigned to guard him in Game 4, ostensibly to stay out of foul trouble, Chalmers called it a sign of disrespect. So he pulled the trigger, hitting 9 of 15 shots and finishing with 25 points after going just 2 for 15 in the two previous games.
James Jones and Norris Cole knocked down important shots to open up the floor for the teammates. Udonis Haslem, who was the team’s third-best player when Bosh was injured for nine games, didn’t even have to have a tremendous series.
Oh, LeBron was very special, making those double-clutch layups through all those mounds of muscles and bodies, ending with his third triple-double of the Finals — a 26-point, 13-assist, 11-rebound heirloom. So determined inside, he refused to leave this to the chance that jump shots from 20 feet or beyond could carry him home.
But if he had any doubts, his teammates did. Men — especially elite athletes — still have a major character flaw we can’t part with: We don’t like asking for help. But when one supernova did two years ago — and that’s really what joining Wade and Bosh and the others in Miami was about — he was roundly criticized for not having the mental toughness to stay with the franchise that drafted him, one that simply could not put the players around LeBron he needed to win it all.
“We never said we were the Big Three; everyone else did,” said Erik Spoelstra, now an NBA champion coach who must have done something right to make these different parts conform, who probably deserves more credit than criticism from now on. “This was a team, a team that overcame a lot.”
Indeed, no NBA champion ever trailed in its final three playoff series.
Durant, the District’s own, seen sobbing on his parents’ shoulders in the corridor of the arena afterward, did not lose this series. He entered Game 5 having made 55 percent of his shots, keeping the Thunder in it with timely three-pointers and a buffet of running jumpers with hands in his face and forearms in his ribs.
There is a reason he was runner-up to LeBron in the MVP voting; no one could guard him for any length of time. There is also a reason he was runner-up to LeBron in the NBA Finals; LeBron had better teammates. He will be back before we know it, determined perhaps as LeBron and the rest of the Heat were this season.
When the championship ceremony ended, the confetti kept falling — onto fans’ heads, onto computers in the press area on the main concourse, all around. As the trophy was passed around and the posing for pictures began, as Miller, Chalmers and Battier took turns smiling with their more celebrated teammates, as LeBron enjoyed his moment,
“We Are the Champions” blared through the arena.
We. Not he. A trio of stars won it all, blending with the others to become a team. Juwan Howard, the first of the Fab Five to win a title, 18 years of service; Miller, 11 years; Battier, America’s role player, a 10-year veteran. On it went, and the confetti kept coming.
James said: “It just shows when you’re committed and you give everything to the game, the game pays off and it gives back to you.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.