MIAMI – Victory in Game 7 brought more than another crown for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It validated the team and its leader, forever cementing their place among the NBA’s greats.
For the vanquished San Antonio Spurs, it simply compounded the misery of a championship that got away.
James led the Heat to their second straight title, scoring 37 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a 95-88 victory on Thursday night at the AmericanAirlines Arena in a tense game that was tight until Miami pulled away in the final minute.
Capping their best season in franchise history – and perhaps the three-superstar system they used to build it – the Heat ran off with the second straight thriller in the NBA’s first championship series to go the distance since 2010.
Two nights after his Game 6 save when the Heat were almost eliminated, James continued his unparalleled run through the basketball world, with two titles and an Olympic gold medal in the past 12 months.
“I work on my game a lot throughout the offseason,” said James, who was MVP for the second consecutive Finals. “I put a lot of work into it and to be able to come out here and (have) the results happen out on the floor is the ultimate. The ultimate. I’m at a loss for words.”
James made five 3-pointers, defended Tony Parker when he had to, and did everything else that could be expected from the best player in the game.
The Heat became the NBA’s first repeat champions since the Lakers in 2009-10, and the first team to beat the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
“It took everything we had as a team,” Dwyane Wade said. “Credit to the San Antonio Spurs, they’re an unbelievable team, an unbelievable franchise. This is the hardest series we ever had to play. But we’re a resilient team and we did whatever it took.”
Players and coaches hugged afterward – their respect for each other was obvious from the opening tipoff of Game 1 through the final buzzer.
A whisker away from a fifth title two nights earlier, the Spurs couldn’t find a way to win it all in what was perhaps the last shot for Tim Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili to grab another ring together.
“In my case, I still have Game 6 in my head,” Ginobili said. “Today, we played an OK game. They just made more shots than us. LeBron got hot. Shane (Battier), too. Those things can happen. But being so close and feeling that you are about to grab that trophy, and seeing it vanish is very hard.”
They were trying to become the first team to win a Game 7 on the road since Washington beat Seattle in 1978, but those old guys ran out of gas just before the finish.
Fans stood, clapped and danced as the clock ticked down, when every score was answered by another score, each stop followed by a better stop. The Heat pushed their lead to six points a few times midway through the fourth but San Antonio kept coming back.
Duncan had 24 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs, but missed a shot and follow attempt under the basket with about 50 seconds left and the Spurs trailing by two.
James followed with a jumper – the shot the Spurs were daring him to take earlier in the series – to make it 92-88, sending San Antonio to a timeout as Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” blared over the arena’s sound system.
He then came up with a steal and made two free throws for a six-point lead, and after Ginobili missed, James stalked toward the sideline, knowing it was over and that he was, once again, the last one standing.
Wade had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Heat, who overcame a scoreless Chris Bosh by getting six 3-pointers and 18 points from Shane Battier.
Streamers fell from the arena ceiling onto the fans for the second year in a row, but this one meant so much more. A narrow escape in Game 6 was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
They were down 10 in the fourth quarter of that one before James led the charge back, finishing with a triple-double in Miami’s 103-100 overtime victory. This one was nearly as tight, neither team leading by more than seven and the game tied 11 times.
Kawhi Leonard had 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Spurs, who had been 4-for-4 in the championship round. Ginobili had 18 points but Parker managed just 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting.
The Heat and coach Erik Spoelstra collected the Larry O’Brien trophy again from commissioner David Stern, presiding over his final NBA Finals before retiring next February.
He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out.