“It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win” – Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road
That is what LeBron James essentially said when, in front of a national audience on July 8th, 2010, he announced that he would be joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to join the Miami Heat.
The Decision, as it became known as, thrust an unprecedented amount of pressure on the NBA’s biggest name to win a championship, and win it immediately.
Now, it can end. The disrespect; the disappointment; the bad memories. At last, LeBron James has his elusive championship. No athlete in professional sports carries the pressure that he does, and for the first nine years of his career, he failed to carry that weight. But tonight, as James and the Heat celebrate a 121-106 victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, that weight no longer exists.
He did not rely on Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh, who formed “The Big Three” nearly 24 months ago during the 2010 Free Agent season. When his team needed him the most, LeBron was shining star. It did not matter when. In the second round, the Conference Finals, or the NBA Finals, it was LeBron. It did not matter where. In Indianapolis, in Boston, in Oklahoma City and in Miami, it was LeBron.
James entered the lock-out shortened 2011-2012 season coming off of two frustrating exits from the playoffs. In 2010, his final season with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron looked more concerned with who would be contacting him in the summer than he did with the result of his team. The Celtics won three straight games over the Cavs to win the Conference Semi-Finals in six games, with LeBron turning the ball over at an alarming rate in the ultimate game. Last year, his first with Wade and Bosh, his performance in the NBA Finals was humiliating. The Heat had a fourth quarter lead in each of the six games, but lost the series in six games, with LeBron playing absent-minded in the fourth quarter.
Now, he is the MVP of the NBA Finals, in addition to his regular season MVP award.
When the Heat dropped Game 3 of the Conference Semi-Finals to Indiana, many thought they were done. Chris Bosh was injured, and Dwyane Wade’s first half production was nonexistent. But LeBron willed them back in Game 4, responding with forty points to tie the series up. The Heat would win the next two games, and LeBron and Wade each scored 90 points over games four, five, and six to advance to the Conference Finals.
In Boston, a dejected LeBron James mumbled “I don’t foul out,” after fouling out in overtime of a Game 4 loss to the Celtics, which knotted the series at two after the Heat took a commanding 2-0 lead. LeBron couldn’t will his team to a Game 5 victory, again causing everyone to push the panic button. Chris Bosh had just come back from his injury and was receiving very limited playing time. Wade’s production continued to lag on and led many, including myself, to wonder if he was completely healthy. “Fire head coach, Eric Spoelstra!”, they said. “Break up the Big Three!” they cried for. In the game that not only could end not only their season, but also their experiment, LeBron James put on one of the greatest performances in NBA Playoff history, on the road. He scored a career playoff high 45 points, and shot near 75%. He added in 15 rebounds and single-handedly willed the Heat to a road victory. In Game Seven on his home court, his shot-clock beating three was the dagger to the Celtics’ season.
In the NBA Finals, LeBron heard the same voices he did last June after a Game 1 loss in which Kevin Durant soundly outscored and outplayed James in the fourth quarter. In Game Two, the Heat nearly experienced deja vu of their collapse in Game 2 of the 2011 Finals, when their mammoth lead was cut to just two points. But James’ defense was able to stop Kevin Durant on the final possession (although controversially), and the Heat never looked back. In Game 3, the Heat trailed by ten points with four minutes left in the 3rd quarter. No problem for James. He hit a three pointer to give them the lead before the quarter expired, and then scored seven points in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t a dominant quarter by any stretch, but you felt his presence and his will on both sides of the ball at all times.
The standout moment in these Finals was in Game 4, when LeBron cramped up in the middle of the fourth quarter in a nip and tuck battle. Limping, James received an outlet pass following a Thunder turnover, pulled up in front of Russell Westbrook who tried to draw the charge, and casually banked in a jump shot. He left the court to get rubbed down, and the Thunder went on a run and took a slim two point lead. LeBron checked back into the game, still limping. The Heat tied the game on the first possession and then with the shot clock dwindling, LeBron drilled a go-ahead three from the top of the arch. The shot had a certain feel to it. There was still nearly three minutes left, but it may as well have been a walk-off shot. The American Airlines Arena, which was eerily quiet throughout the 2011 Finals, erupted to a level that experts have said was the loudest the building had ever been. It drew comparison, although very unfairly, to Willis Reed limping onto the court at Madison Square Garden in Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals. It was not as heroic as that, and it did not have as big of an impact on the Heat as Reed’s moment did for the Knicks. But James’ shot still was surreal, and in that moment you just had the feeling that it was his time. That was his shot, the biggest shot he’s ever had in his career. And he drilled it.
Game Five was little more than a coronation. The Thunder were frustrated at being so close for the first four games, and having only one win to show for it. The Heat took control in the second quarter and never looked back. Again, it was LeBron leading the charge, this time putting up a triple-double. When the Heat went up by over twenty mere minutes after the Thunder had cut a ten point halftime lead down to five, it was over. The King had found his crown in a display of physical prowess that would have made even King Arthur jealous.
Make no mistake about it – this was his championship. Chris Bosh missed a series and a half with a strained abdominal muscle. Dwyane Wade battled ankle injuries all season long and looked as if it affected his play in the early rounds of the playoffs. Until the NBA Finals, Heat role players such as Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Shane Battier, and Mike Miller were either inconsistent or injured. Their play could not be relied upon. The only constant in the playoffs was LeBron James. He averaged over 30 points and nearly 10 rebounds for the playoffs. He made the clutch shots, shot remarkably well from the foul line in the Finals, and played lock down defense on Kevin Durant, frustrating his rival to a level not seen in these playoffs.
Yes, he had help. Shane Battier shot three pointers like he was playing for Coach K again. Dwyane Wade eventually found his game in the NBA Finals, and Chris Bosh received a clean bill of health and was a menace inside the paint on defense. With seven three pointers, Mike Miller’s impression of Ray Allen was critical to the Heat success in Game 5. Shane Battier shot 57% from beyond the arch in the Finals. Norris Cole made critical three pointers in the second quarter of Game 4, which quickly erased a 17 point deficit, and then Mario Chalmers woke up and scored 25 points.
Many will say that the officiating played an impact, and to an extent it did. Many of Kevin Durant’s fouls in Games 2 and 3 were soft. But the refs did not turn Shane Battier and Mike Miller into snipers. The refs did not turn James Harden into Luke Walton. This championship, fairly and squarely was won by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Yes, it is only one, but the first is often the toughest. Ask Michael Jordan, who had to wait in line behind Chuck Daly and the Detroit Pistons in the late ’80s. Ask Hakeem Olajuwon, who had to wait ten seasons before winning in back to back seasons in ’94, and ’95. Let’s not forget that Mr. Clutch himself, Jerry West, did not capture a championship until his 8th trip to the Finals.
You can dislike LeBron James all you want, and I won’t argue that. More often then not, I’ll be alongside you, grimacing every time he makes a shot. What he did on July 8th, 2010 is still inexcusable. It made a mockery not just out of basketball, but out of all professional sports. But it is not unforgivable, and this is hardly the time judge him for that. There is no way a reasonable person can not respect him after tonight. He has answered all the critics, made all the shots, and won the ring. This night belongs to LeBron.
He has admitted that his actions with The Decision and his comments after losing the 2011 Finals were “immature”, and that he is a different person now. That much is apparent. As humans, we grow through adversity. LeBron James is human, and in just 12 months, he has grown more than he did in nine years.
Congrats to the Miami Heat players, and their organization including Eric Spoelstra (who deserves a lot of credit for not losing his cool in these playoffs), Pat Riley, and their owner, Micky Arison.
For reaction on the Thunder’s loss in the NBA Finals, read about it here.