LeBron earns validation, place in history with first championship

Publish date:

• Crown King James. The title represents something of a validation for James -- who had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in Game 5 -- though he never needed as much validation as the howling critics would have had you believe. This is a player who dominated Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Orlando and others in high-stakes postseason performances over the half-decade before this magnificent playoff run. He failed in the Finals last season -- badly -- against Dallas, but his résumé was never just one of a "choker." It was spotty, filled with massive crunch-time heroics and a few unacceptable meltdowns -- including one prolonged collapse on the game's biggest stage.

But he has long been the NBA's most polished player, and in this series, he corrected the only blemish on his record by dominating the only playoff round he had yet to command. He grew into some unholy combination of point forward and power forward, grabbing rebounds, dishing assists all over the floor, guarding every position and contributing Hall of Fame-level production even when his jumper wouldn't fall. He scored at least 30 points in 13 of Miami's 23 playoff games, including in 10 of 12 games beginning in Game 4 of the conference semifinals against Indiana -- the team's first playoff pressure point. He finished the playoffs with a stat line -- 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game -- nearly unrivaled in the modern NBA.

The noise can cease now. The 2011 Finals don't vanish, just as the 1984 Finals never disappeared from Magic Johnson's record. But James can now take his place without argument among the very greatest players of all time.

• It wasn't just LeBron. The Heat polished off the Thunder in fitting style, flashing both the long-honed skills that got them within two games of the title last season and the new ones that pushed them over the top this time around. Oklahoma City never found an answer for one of these newly refined elements: James' post-up game. James picked apart the Thunder with passes for layups (to Chris Bosh, who had 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting) and wide-open threes (to everybody, but especially to Mike Miller, who overcome a pile of injuries to make seven of the Heat's record-tying 14 three-pointers and score 23 points on Thursday).

The Thunder showed a hard trap on James, but they didn't commit to making it hard enough or early enough, and the rotations behind it were lacking. James and Dwyane Wade (20 points) also scored easy baskets at the rim via off-ball cuts, something each has had to do more of on this star-heavy roster. And when those initial traps forced Miami to shift the offense away from James' post game, the Heat went back to their old bread-and-butter: high pick-and-rolls, cross-screens under the rim and plays in which one player comes jetting off a series of picks in the corner.

Miami also brought the same swarming defense that has been taking opponents away from preferred options for two seasons. The old and the new -- the classic and the improved -- brought the Heat their championship.

• Oklahoma City fizzled. The Thunder were game in this series and generally kept scoring efficiently, but their defense was not ready for four tough playoff rounds. It broke apart in the Finals and simply collapsed with the season on the line in Game 5. They miscommunicated in transition and in their rotations against James' post-ups and every pick-and-roll that the Heat ran. Too many Miami possessions ended in easy looks, and with Oklahoma City players shrugging and pointing at each other, unsure of who was supposed to be where. It was a collective failure, one exacerbated by the fact that they had no good matchup for James. Coach Scott Brooks probably didn't help with some curious rotation choices, including playing center Kendrick Perkins too many minutes and staying with big lineups when it was clear they were not working. But the Thunder have nothing to be ashamed of, especially after blitzing the Spurs and ramping up their defense over the final four games of that series. They will be back.