It seemed inevitable, this Miami Heat championship. Going into the lockout-shortened NBA season, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had a year of experience playing together and a humbling finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks to motivate them. So even though the Oklahoma City Thunder finished this regular season with a better record than Miami and owned home-court advantage in this year’s finals, Miami’s relatively easy five-game triumph over Oklahoma City — Miami dominated Game 5 Thursday night, 121-106 — is far from a surprise.
Pat Riley’s 2010 signings of James and Bosh will get most of the credit for this 2012 title, as they should. But Miami is much more than just three players; that’s why the Heat are now champions. Point guard Mario Chalmers, often ridiculed as a weak link and the recipient of many disapproving glares from his more accomplished teammates, scored 25 points in Game 4, the game that broke Oklahoma City’s will. Shane Battier found his shooting stroke — he still had one? — and was money from three-point range all series. Reserve Mike Miller, who won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2001 but has struggled with injuries and ineffective play during his two years in Miami, shot 7 of 8 from three-point range in Game 5.
This series featured the juicy James-vs.–Kevin Durant matchup, the most anticipated finals duel since Michael Jordan met Magic Johnson in 1991. The parallels between this series and that one were eerie. Both were surprisingly one-sided. The Los Angeles Lakers, like the Oklahoma City Thunder, won Game 1, though they did it on the road in Chicago, while Oklahoma City’s victory was at home. Then the Lakers, like the Thunder, lost four straight. The Heat’s Miller played the part of Chicago’s John Paxson, who hit some big outside shots in the decisive Game 5 in ’91.
And yes, LeBron was indeed Jordanesque. On two occasions in Game 5, he mimicked Jordan’s famous spectacular move from the 1991 finals, when Jordan jumped into the lane, switched the ball from his right to his left hand while hanging in the air and finished a layup. James did not exactly switch hands, but he jumped with a defender draped over him, contorted his arms and body while airborne and hit impossibly difficult shots.
James won the series’ MVP award and erased memories of his lousy 2011 finals against Dallas. He admitted he was immature last year. “I tried to prove something to everybody,” James said of the previous year while standing on the championship podium Thursday night. “I played with a lot of hate.” His bitterness was apparent after that finals loss, with his tone-deaf observation that “all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. And I am going to continue to live the way that I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do.”
This year, and during this series, James was more relaxed, focused and lethal. Just look at his numbers: 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in the 2011 finals, compared with 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists this time out. His stats in the decisive game were equally impressive: 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists.
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There’s real joy in James’ game. Sure, you can still hold The Decision against him and dock him points for not winning that first title in Cleveland. But give him credit: LeBron James loves sharing the basketball. The Heat finished with 14 three-point shots on Thursday, tying a finals record, and Miami’s downtown barrage all starts with LeBron. He draws the attention, then throws perfect pitches to his open teammates. Jordan and Kobe Bryant represent the cold-blooded scorers who pass when they have to. James proved he could close like those guys, especially when attacking the basket. But dishing is his true love.
Remember that “We Are All Witnesses” campaign built around James in Cleveland? As soon as he took his talents to South Beach, workers began dismantling a 10-story “Witness” billboard in downtown Cleveland. That campaign faded, happily. I’d hope this new, more mature LeBron James wouldn’t sign off on something so self-indulgent. (Though I could have done without the Nike ad, showing a man crafting a championship ring for LeBron, that aired right after the buzzer.)
But we did witness something special Thursday night: a star player in his passing element and a collection of individual stars epitomizing teamwork. That dynamic is rare in sports. LeBron will enjoy this one. He called it the happiest day of his life.”It’s about damn time,” he said after the game.
However, he’s still LeBron. And we’ll be expecting, what, five or six more?