MIAMI -- LeBron James reached up and grabbed a pass intended for Tim Duncan, one generation stealing a championship from another. Twenty-three seconds and only a few doubters remained. James was going to the free-throw line, going to finish off one of the great performances in NBA history, and there wasn't a thing that Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs could do about it.
First free throw: Good. Second: Good. All of it: So, so good. James and the Miami Heat led 94-88, and would add one more point for their second straight championship. James finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. His performance was beyond great. It was historic.
And for the second straight year, the locker room and tunnels at AmericanAirlines Arena turned into the best kind of party, filled with cigar smoke and champagne, beer and happiness. Wives hugged. Players screamed. Kids walked around, hours past bedtime, trying to make sense of it all.
Dwyane Wade walked out onto the floor, long after the game ended, and made a snow angel in the confetti at center court. Chris "Birdman" Andersen held a phone at arm's length and took a selfie. Juwan Howard introduced his son to a man in a white dress shirt: "This is Cal Ripken Jr. You'll Google him later."
Point guard Mario Chalmers walked calmly to his friends with an unlit cigar in his mouth -- even in celebration, he looked supremely confident. Heat owner Mickey Arison, who happens to be a billionaire, smiled like a kid who just won the Little League championship.
James' talent and drive threw that party. He dominated, and more than that, he needed to dominate. This was one of the best NBA Finals ever, and one of the great Game 7s ever. If James was even pretty good in Game 7, this is a column about your NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, about Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
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Instead, Heat forward Shane Battier walked toward his press conference with a champagne bottle in hand, then darted into a lounge filled with fans. Battier had been awful all series, and he knew it. The morning of Game 7, his wife, Heidi, told him: Last year, you had a great Finals, and Mike Miller played great in the clincher against Oklahoma City.
"I'm like, 'Mike has had an incredible series,'" Heidi said. "Now it's your turn."
Inside the lounge, Battier ducked behind a couch, walked slowly and sprayed champagne all over his wife. This was risky, because she was wearing white. "Double layers!" she said, explaining why she had a second shirt. She laughed. They were high school sweethearts. It was just so perfect.
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Danny Green was surrounded but alone, wearing only a towel. He was asked if he wanted to take questions from the media or get dressed first. The answer seemed to be: Neither. He wanted to wallow in nothingness.
"Get dressed," the Spurs' guard said, and for a while, he just sat there.
It was so quiet that you could hear Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and Gary Neal doing interviews in different corners of the locker room, talking about what almost was.
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Green has large tattoos on his back and his side, and on his left wrist, a small one. LIMITED EDITION, it says. Those first five games of these Finals, when Green made an astounding 25-of-38 three-point shots, those were Danny Green Limited Edition Games. In Games 6 and 7, he was 2-for-19 from the field. He was sick the day of Game 7. He was sicker afterward.
"I'm just a little disappointed in the way I didn't come to play tonight," Green said. "I left my teammates out -- left them out, kind of, to dry. I let Timmy, Manu and Pop [coach Gregg Popovich] down. I'm at a loss of words."
For five games, he was a phenomenon, a meteor flying across the American sports scene. It ended in misery, with nothing left but the mundane tasks of everyday life. At one point, Green looked over at Diaw.
"Goin' to eat?" he asked.
Pat Riley rarely does interviews these days, but what the hell, why not? Life was glorious. He was drenched in champagne, still wearing a black necktie, standing in a hallway outside the Heat locker room. He ignored pleas from a staffer to end it ("Pat! Pat, we gotta get going!") and talked about how LeBron reminded him of his old Lakers star, Magic Johnson. Riley called to assistant general manager Andy Elisburg and asked where Bruce Springsteen was performing that night.
And he talked about the infamous 2010 "Decision," when James announced on ESPN that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami. That was the moment when it all changed for James, when so many people decided that whatever he did would not be enough.
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"We make so much of what was said and how much was done and all of that," Riley said of that 2010 announcement. "It's all bull---- now. All it's about now is what's in front of us. I wish people would stop talking about that."
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Popovich had already hugged James and kissed Wade. He had walked through the Spurs' locker room with a water bottle that he surely wanted to exchange for one of his beloved bottles of wine. He had played the role of Gregg Popovich all spring, acting like a surly curmudgeon in ways he never would have tried just five years ago. He is a lot nicer and more respectful than he has seemed lately, and in his postgame press conference, he said this:
"We lost to a better team."
That is a loser's consolation, and classy of Pop to say. But it isn't really true. This series was not about determining the better team. It was about survival.
In seven games, the Spurs outscored the Heat 684-679, a virtual tie, and if Ray Allen had missed a three-pointer at the end of regulation in Game 6, or if Duncan had made a layup near the end of regulation in Game 7, not to mention the various banked three-pointers and shots that caromed off the rim twice and ... well, let's be honest here. There was no better team. Two champions played seven games and one got crowned.
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Arison, the owner, was asked to compare the 2013 championship to 2012 or 2006, and he had no answer. There is no answer. He loves them all. Wouldn't you? But then he was asked about LeBron, and he said this:
"Pat says it all the time: Nobody knows what it's like to be LeBron James other than LeBron James. Maybe Tiger Woods. Maybe Michael Jordan, but Michael had it later. LeBron had it from 14 years old, that scrutiny his whole life. Despite all that, for him to come out, work hard every day ... I can't say more than anybody else said."
Maybe we should all stop trying to say more than anybody else has. Maybe we should say less. Maybe we should shut up and marvel at James, dribbling, getting fouled, falling to the ground and somehow spinning the ball into the basket. Maybe we should be mute and appreciate him stepping forward and drilling three-pointers.
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Maybe we should let James speak. After an amazing performance at the end of an amazing series, he talked about how much he had improved since his first Finals, in 2007, when his Cavaliers got swept by San Antonio. He joked about calling off his upcoming wedding if the Heat had lost.
He was asked about his offseason training, and he talked about his offseason training, and then he said, "Please don't ask me about my offseason training." He said he needed to rest his body after a withering 30-month stretch: a packed, lockout-tightened 66-game regular season, a grind to a championship, a grind to an Olympic gold medal, another grind to another championship.
He was gracious and complimentary of the team he eliminated, and he didn't say he told you so, or throw his greatness back in anybody's face. He did not play our game.
"I will see you guys when I see you guys," he told the media at the end. "And please continue to motivate me. I need you guys. Thank you."
Then the best basketball player in the world stood up, stuck a cigar in his smile and walked out.
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