The fire in Heat's heart

The fire in Heat's heart

LeBron James silenced his critics in style with his second straight NBA crown

The fire in Heat's heart

Legacies are generally determined after the fact, written by others, is imposed on the subjects without their input. For the last three years, LeBron James has endured daily revisions to his legacy, a chorus of critics framing his career based on a single game, a single series, the shots that swished and those that missed, never waiting for a fuller picture to emerge.

 James at last seized control of his own narrative last Thursday, leaving nothing to chance and no more room for debate. He drove hard, shot brilliantly, scored every critical basket and finally pushed the Miami Heat past the San Antonio Spurs for a 95-88 victory in Game 7 of the NBA finals.

 As red and white confetti rained from the rafters at American Airlines Arena, James — oft vilified, perpetually scrutinized — soaked in the revelry and embraced a new identity: back-to-back champion. There were still doubters out there, somewhere, beyond the clouds of fluttering paper, but their ranks are surely shrinking.

 “I can’t worry about what everybody says about me,” a joyful James said on the championship podium after receiving his second straight finals Most Valuable Player trophy. “I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here.”

 James came here three summers ago in pursuit of championship glory, to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a superstar lineup for the ages, to start collecting championships - “Not one, not two, not three ... ” he infamously declared in July 2010. The banners are indeed starting to accumulate, with James earning this second title despite diminishing returns from his co-stars.

With Wade slowed by an injured right knee, James carried a greater burden this June than he did a year ago. And he faced a tougher, more seasoned opponent, a decorated Spurs team with three Hall of Fame talents in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. It took seven games, including a furious comeback and an overtime in Game 6, to earn this moment. And then it took everything James had in the final minutes of the final game.

 “The toughest series we’ve ever been in,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
After leading the Heat’s comeback two nights earlier, James carried them to the finish with a 37-point, 12-rebound outburst on Thursday. He had eight points in the final 5:39, repelling every attempt by the Spurs to take the game back.

 Everyone should understand by now that James is only clearing his throat, settling into the prime of his emotional maturity. In all basketball-related ways, he is no man-child anymore. The numbers alone - 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two steals, two turnovers in 45 minutes of owning the ball and the burden - fail to explain his dominance of Game 7. And like a good and generous teammate, James made it about the collective when he sat down in the interview room afterward.

“This team is amazing,” he said.

After hugging James at midcourt, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich kissed Dwyane Wade’s cheek and told him, “You were Dwyane Wade tonight,” and that was certainly true. The Heat also needed all of Shane Battier’s stunning 3-point marksmanship (6 for 8). But let’s not kid ourselves. The Heat was no superteam in the finals, those 27 straight regular-season victories notwithstanding.

 With Wade hurting, or declining, and Chris Bosh demonstrating again that he is no max-salary player, James’ supporting cast was not as good as Michael Jordan’s on any of his six Bulls’ title teams. When Jordan took his sabbatical in 1993-94, the so-called Jordanaires won 55 games and were probably one lousy call (the infamous Hue Hollins judgment that Scottie Pippen fouled Hubert Davis) from reaching the Eastern
Conference finals. Without James, would this Miami team be guaranteed 45 victories and even the second round in the postseason?

It was the sheer force of James’ all-court versatility and his Jordanesque obsession with exerting himself on every play that finally gave Miami separation from the Spurs. Dared to shoot the jumper, he made five 3-pointers. And after a leg-weary Tim Duncan missed a short jump hook over the undersized Battier that would have tied the game, James drained the Spurs of a pulse with a 19-footer from the right side that gave the Heat a 92-88 lead with 27.9 seconds left.

 “I mean, I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, OK, this is how they’re going to play me for the whole series,” James said. “I looked at all my regular-season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best midrange shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the 3-point line. I just told myself: Don’t abandon what you’ve done all year. Don’t abandon now because they’re going under.”

For Spoelstra, LeBron's devastating jump shots in Game Seven were the fruit of the player's conscious decision to improve that element of his shooting game. "We all know his work ethic. It is probably unique for a guy who has been the best in the game since he was in seventh grade, usually you wouldn't have that type of work ethic that would match that type of talent," he said.

"But as the series went on, he realised that was probably going to be the shot that was going to be open and in the biggest game, the biggest moment, those are the shots that he hit and those were the difference tonight".

James had little time off following last year's championship win — heading to London to help the United States win Olympic gold — and he says he now needs to rest his body fully this off-season. But it is hard to imagine the 28-year-old doesn't have several more memorable seasons and triumphs ahead of him. "The story has yet to be seen what he is going to end up with," said Wade. "He is a special player. What he brings here every night is unbelievable."

Critics may take potshots at James but for the man who engineered his move to Miami three years ago, Heat president Pat Riley, the player has more than answered his doubters.

"They don't understand the game. We live in the world of immediate blame and immediate praise and they're always going to take a shot at the guy at the top of the mountain. LeBron is the greatest player in the world, one of the greatest leaders I have been around. He deserves everything that he gets right now.”