MIAMI -- They noticed the platform. But did they notice the irony? LeBron James and his friends are the modern-day standard for counting championships before they are won, and there they were, on their home court, watching the NBA prepare a trophy presentation for the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.
The Heat would not allow it. Say what you want about this team, but say that, too: The Heat would not allow it. With 28 seconds left in what was already an incredible sporting event, Miami trailed San Antonio 94-89. Tony Parker had just scored five straight points, including a deep fade-away three-pointer that seemed destined for two decades of highlight shows. Manu Ginobili added three free throws. The Heat had gone from up three to down five.
James was struggling, Dwyane Wade was hobbling and Chris Bosh was serving as Tim Duncan's throw pillow. This was not what they planned. But they are discovering that sports, at their best, are not about carefully orchestrated celebrations, but those little, unplanned moments when you find yourself.
Moments like this: James, wary of firing an outside shot for most of this series, drilling a 25-footer for his 14th, 15th and 16th points of the fourth quarter. And then, perfect chaos: A missed shot, a rebound by Bosh, a pass to Ray Allen, who drifted behind the three-point line and launched, all in one smooth and historic move. Good. Overtime.
Five minutes later, the Heat forced Game 7 with a 103-100 win. Somebody will get that trophy, but not until Thursday night. Can the Spurs recover? Can the Heat do this again? Can anybody say for sure? For a moment, let's appreciate what we saw in Game 6. This was the kind of game that made spectators feel like participants and participants marvel like spectators.
"Best game I've ever seen," said Bosh, who played 39 minutes.
James said it was "by far the best game I've ever been a part of."
OK, easy for them to say. They won. But when Mike Miller hits a fourth-quarter three-pointer with one shoe on, and the final 10 minutes feature an 11-3 Heat run and an 8-0 Spurs run, and overtime ends with Bosh blocking former future Finals MVP Danny Green's three-pointer ... well, maybe there have been better games in NBA history. But not many.
What was the key moment? James finished with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds -- that is a whole stat line full of key moments. Naturally, the first two questions in James' press conference were about his headband coming off in the second half. I'm going to take a wild guess here and say this was not about the headband. We get so caught up in the silly sometimes that we miss the transcendent.
Buried in that press conference, if you listened closely enough, was the best player in the world saying this, about the start of the fourth quarter:
"After we came out, before we entered the ball, I basically just told myself: Give it all I got. If we go down losing, I'm going to go down with no bullets ..."
James stopped himself. Perhaps he was worried about how the bullet imagery would be portrayed. Would we really criticize him for using a fairly simple analogy, and say that he was insensitive to gunshot victims? Yeah, we might.
" ... I'm going all out. I can be satisfied with the results."
It was almost like he was checking Twitter during timeouts, and saw how people were eager to dump on him as a choker and fraud for missing some shots in the first half, for losing in the Finals for the third time, even though the first time the carried an overmatched Cleveland team to the Finals and last year he won the title and in these Finals he had some terrific games and ... enough. He can't win the argument. He wasn't even sure he could win the game. But he was determined to go for it.
He played like it, too. He has hesitated with the ball too much in this series, and he seems to know it. He didn't do that as much in the fourth quarter. He took guys off the dribble. He rebounded. He blocked a shot.
He also committed three turnovers, and his team almost lost the game. But he played like he is supposed to play.
We may look back and decide that the Heat won the title Tuesday night -- that the Allen three staggered the Spurs, and they never recovered. I don't know. San Antonio was the better team for most of Game 6, and the Spurs are consistently getting better shots than Miami.
Either way, James can know that he pulled his team as far as he can pull it. Thirty-two-points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds. We may never be satisfied with his results, but he is.
There is a quote hanging in James' locker. It is from Mahatma Gandhi: ""Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow men."
If we choose our inspirational quotes by the people we admire, that is perfect for James. He does not have the assassin's heart of Michael Jordan or the unshakable confidence of Kobe Bryant. But on an epic night in a riveting series in a magnificent career, LeBron James did everything he could for his fellow men.