Redemption

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Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2012 NBA Champions, the Miami Heat! Oh, and your Bill Russell MVP winner, the greatest player on Planet Earth: Mr. LeBron James.

“It’s about damn time”. Yes it is LeBron, but I bet it was worth the wait.

And even ‘The Decision’ feels like a long time ago now.

The burning of jerseys in Cleveland. Dan Gilbert’s hate-filled letter to fans. The ill-advised brashness. The premature celebrations.

All distant memories.

Chris Bosh’s tears after last year’s Game 6 defeat. LeBron’s petulant response to the media. The ridicule. The schadenfreude. All washed away last night in scenes of unbridled joy and jubilation at American Airlines Arena.

Getting the Job Done

They say the close out game is the hardest one to win. That may be true, but last night the Heat made it look easy in their first attempt to close out the series. They crushed the Thunder, 121-106, to seal the deal in front of their home fans.

No offense to the lovely people of Oklahoma City, but no one wanted to go back there for a Game 6. Not the media (which city would you rather attend an after-party in?), and certainly not the Heat players—two straight games in front of the loudest fans in basketball, was about as appealing as self-surgery. The Heat were on a mission to finish the job in Game 5. Mission accomplished.

The tone for the night was set with a Shane Battier 3-pointer early in the game—how big has that guy been in these Finals?! Kevin Durant kept the score close, but Mike Miller hit his first two trifectas of the night (he would have seven in all…seven!!) to give Miami a 5-point lead at the end of the 1st quarter.

The 2nd quarter followed much the same pattern. LeBron imposed his will in the paint, and everywhere else, while the Heat couldn’t miss from the beyond the arc. Incidentally, 3-point shooting became one of the unforeseen x-factors in these Finals. The Heat made 14 of 26 last night, and were knocking them down all series.

OKC couldn’t knock down anything from the field. Russell Westbrook was being aggressive as always, getting to the line and keeping his team in the game, but Miami was chasing down every loose ball, winning every 50-50 play, and playing like the best defensive team in the NBA. Battier finished the half by beating his defender off the dribble to score a layup. Bad sign for the Thunder. They were lucky to only be down 10 at halftime.

Their luck wouldn’t last.

Miami ran OKC out of the building in the 3rd quarter. An endless barrage of 3s, unbelievably great ball movement, and highlight reel plays on the defensive end, sealed the championship for the Heat.

And all this after the Thunder made a decent start to the quarter. After they’d cut the lead to 5 points, and had the chance to make it a one-possession game, Miami took over. They went on a 27-7 run and blew the game wide open.

The 4th quarter was merely a formality, a chance for a veteran like Juwan Howard to get a couple minutes of floor time, and savor the moment—his first ring in 18 seasons of professional basketball.

Playing the Right Way

After the game, Mike Wilbon would say that he didn’t see one isolation play in that 3rd quarter stretch. He was right. This was unselfish basketball at it’s finest. Crisp ball movement, constant movement off the ball, and players always looking to create an easier shot for their teammates. You may hate the Miami Heat for a variety of reasons, but if you hate the way they played the game last night, you don’t like basketball.

But back to Mike Miller.

Miller hadn’t made one 3-pointer in the first 4 games of these Finals. He was about as mobile as that old guy that shows up at your local gym to play some rec league ball—except that he knocked down seven 3s, and finished with 23 points in an NBA Finals game. Not bad for a guy that could barely walk. If he does end up retiring due to all the injuries, as many suspect he will, what a way to go out!

In fact, for a team as unlikeable as the Heat supposedly are, there sure were a lot of feel-good stories last night.

Shane Battier, the consummate professional, always playing the game the right way, always saying the right thing—a winner at last. Chris Bosh, battling back from a major injury in these playoffs—dispelling all the accusations of softness with some massive games down the stretch, including a clutch performance last night. Dwyane Wade—a deserved 2nd NBA championship for a guy who’s put his body on the line in every game of his 9-year career.

And it would be remiss not to mention Erik Spoelstra. He won’t get the credit, but spare a thought, and maybe a polite round of applause, for a guy who’s been under more pressure than any other coach in the NBA. When his team lost, it was because he couldn’t coach—when they won, it was because of his players. It was a lose-lose situation at times. He’s a young coach, learning with every game, but his calm under pressure when his team was struggling was a hugely underrated aspect of Miami’s postseason run.

But the night belonged to one man.

All Hail King James

End the noise now. LeBron James is one of the top-ten players of all time, and has the potential to rise among that esteemed company. This was HIS NBA Finals. HIS playoffs. HIS season. We’ve all waxed lyrical about James throughout this postseason, but it is important to underline how big of a Game 5 performance that was. 26-11-13!—a massive triple-double in the biggest game of his career, cementing his place in NBA Finals lore.

Don’t tell me that LeBron isn’t clutch. That argument should be buried, along with all the doubts about his legacy.

Last night, and his season in general, have been a culmination of months of refocus, and rededication. LeBron was humiliated, and humbled (his own words) after the loss to the Mavericks last year. He went away, developed a post-game, got serious, got hungry, got angry, and played the game like it was fun again. The results are there for all to see. If his career ended now, he’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and one of the all-time greats.

But watch out NBA. After Jordan won his first championship in his 7th year, the floodgates opened. MJ has talked openly about how winning the 1st ring is the hardest, and that you’re able to loosen up and play free after that hurdle is overcome. That is not to say that LeBron will win another 5 titles, or will leave a legacy like Jordan’s, but the weight is off his shoulders now. We may see a bigger, better, LeBron James in the years to come. A scary thought.

And spare a thought for another future Springfield inductee: Kevin Durant. Durant was inconsolable at the end of the game. He gave it his all and was fantastic in defeat—32 points and 11 rebounds. What’s more, Durant personified class—walking over to LeBron to congratulate him, before finally breaking down in the tunnel.

Durant and his young Thunder team will be back. The Heat went through the pain of a Finals defeat and came back stronger for it. It may not feel too good right now, but OKC will benefit from a defeat like this in the long run. They are a young, talented, well-coached team, with all the intangibles required, and they will challenge for years to come.

This was not about what OKC failed to do, however, but what the Miami Heat did do. They were the better team at both ends of the floor, and showed a level of poise and maturity that only comes from going through tough times. The Thunder will be back, but they may have to go through this Heat team again if they want to taste the champagne.

And LeBron James will be ready for them. For now he can savor becoming an NBA champion at last. The King finally has his crown.

 
 
Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. He was born and raised in London, England, but moved to Canada in 2004. He graduated from Carleton University with a degree in History, which he mostly uses to sound smart at social gatherings. When he’s not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he’s watching something else sports related. Follow him on Twitter.
 
 

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