x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Miami turned on the Heat when it mattered the most in NBA Finals

Memories of Spurs running the team of stars too close for comfort will only haunt San Antonio for missing out on their best chance in years to come

Miami Heat players celebrate after winning Game 7 of the NBA Finals 95-88 against the San Antonio Spurs. Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo
Miami Heat players celebrate after winning Game 7 of the NBA Finals 95-88 against the San Antonio Spurs. Wilfredo Lee / AP Photo

Chris Bosh told those Heat fans who had left Game 6 early to stay home, and judging strictly by his line in Game 7, he barely bothered to show up himself.

Fortunately, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade did.

"The vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true," James said after the Heat beat the Spurs 95-88 in Game 7 on Thursday night to capture a second straight NBA title in Miami's third consecutive Finals appearance.

James was already the best player in the game when he made "The Decision" nearly three years ago to abandon Cleveland and move to Florida, a move that the rest of the basketball world pounced on as a sign of weakness, a tacit admission that he could not win a championship by himself, and he was right.

Bosh, always destined to be third among the Big Three, was not much help in Game 7, contributing zero points on 0-for-5 shooting with seven rebounds.

But Wade scored 23 points and Shane Battier, previously unproductive, had a career shooting night when it counted, making six three-pointers.

The Heat still look like a chemistry experiment-in-progress some nights, a collection of Type-A personalities waiting for their cue to take over. James was reluctant to do so at first, because his personality - as has been endlessly dissected - reflects Magic Johnson's pass-first demeanour more than Michael Jordan's shoot-always attitude.

But as James reminded everyone at the end of both Game 6, when the Spurs first dared him to drive the ball to the basket, then Game 7, when his defender laid back and dared James to shoot from the perimetre, scoring is not a problem.

Even if those long- and mid-range jumpers were not among his strengths. "I put a lot of work into my game over the offseason and to come out here and see the results happen on the floor," he said, "is the ultimate."

Amid all the celebrating, the Heat president Pat Riley said he would do his best to bring everybody back, perhaps because he still owns the trademark to the term "three-peat" dating to his days as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

One story line that underpinned the finals, but did not warrant much discussion until the trophy presentation began, was the impending retirement of the NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern could not help patting himself on the back, noting that the Finals were broadcast in 217 countries and in 47 languages after his 30 years of promoting the game worldwide. You have to wonder, though, whether secretly he was not hoping to hand over the hardware to the Spurs at least one more time.

These Finals were about opposing strategies on how to build a dominant franchise in the post-Jordan era.

The Spurs, a small-market operation that built through the draft and filled out their ranks with a few shrewd pick-ups, are a marvel of consistency. They are coached by Gregg Popovich, who has learned to get by with less and maximize every shot he gets.

The Heat were convenient villains, fair or not, for skipping most of the preliminaries and assembling the core of the team with little more than a checkbook.

James's move to Miami touched off free-agent envy among his superstar brethren - everybody wanted to be a part of a Big Three somewhere - and the rest of the league is still scrambling to put one together as formidable as Riley's troika in Miami.

That is what made San Antonio's fold-up-and-crumple act in the last two games dispiriting.

It is also why Tim Duncan did his best to not go gently into that good night, slamming his palm on the court — a rare show of emotion — after missing a short hook that would have tied the game with 50 seconds left.

He broke up trying to answer which of the last two losses would haunt him most.

"For me, Game 7," Duncan began. "Missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch … Unable to stop Dwyane and LeBron.

"For me," he said finally, haltingly, "Game 7 will always haunt me."

It is not just that Duncan knows his advancing age will make even a return to the Finals a Herculean task. It is more that the Spurs, for all the things they have done right throughout a sneaky-good decade run, have almost certainly exhausted their chances.

The Heat, on the other hand - especially if James continues to improve season after season as convincingly as he has - may just be finding their stride.

 

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