MIAMI - Amazingly, the tombstone of the Heat was being chiseled 17 days ago when they dropped a 94-90 decision to the Celtics at home in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and were one loss from elimination.
And the reputation of LeBron James as a wunderkind unable to propel his team to greatness was no longer an unfair assessment. It was reality.
But on Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat broke the hearts of those traditionalists who did not want such a team compiled through free agent dollars and the lure of a sexy city to win a championship. And James broke the hearts of those who wished him nothing but playoff failures after leaving the Cavaliers in such a controversial and publicized fashion.
The Heat are NBA champions, primarily because of the heroics of James, who scored 45 points in Game 6 against the Celtics, and then catapulted his team to an impressive title run that culminated with a 121-106 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the Finals.
Miami won the series, four games to one, pummeling Oklahoma City in the second half, helped by the 3-point shooting of unheralded Mike Miller. James finished his masterful run with a triple-double and Miller canned seven 3-pointers to finish off the overwhelmed Thunder.
After a series of postseason failures, his much-criticized free agent decision and playing into a villain role last season, James appeared to reassess his approach and emerged as the Heat’s leader, avoiding the late-game failures that plagued him during last year’s Finals. James, who was named MVP of the Finals, was considered one of the game’s greatest players never to win a title, and it took nine years to erase that tag.
James left the game with 3:01 remaining, looking to embrace anyone within arms’ distance. He then ripped off his headband, hugged assistant coach Bob McAdoo, who was a prolific player who did not win an NBA title until his 10th season.
“I’m happy I was able to do it the right way,’’ James said, with the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy on his right and the MVP Trophy to his left. “I was playing to prove people wrong last year. People would say I was selfish and that got to me, that got to me a lot because I know that this is a team game. All last year, I tried to prove people wrong and it wasn’t me. Basically I was fighting against myself.
“I knew I was going to have to change as a basketball player and change as a person to get what I wanted and it happened just one year later. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Since I picked up a basketball at 9 years old, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’’
James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists in the Finals.
Three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who single-handedly tried competing with the Heat with 32 points, hugged his parents in the tunnel as he wept.
“It hurts. It hurts, man,’’ said the 23-year-old Durant. “We’re all like brothers on this team and it just hurts to go out like this. We made it to the Finals, which was cool for us, but we just didn’t want to make it there. Unfortunately we lost, so it’s tough. That’s the only way I can explain it.’’
The third quarter was a microcosm of the series, with the Heat showing more poise and making bigger plays than the Thunder.
A key sequence occurred with 7:21 left in that frame and the Thunder having cut the deficit to 69-62 on a Durant jumper. As Mario Chalmers dribbled to the sideline to call a timeout, he and Durant got tangled and pushed each other.
No technicals were called, but Juwan Howard raced over from the Miami bench to grab Chalmers, and the intensity rose, at least for the Heat. They steamrolled the Thunder with a 21-3 run, using Chris Bosh’s mismatch against Kendrick Perkins, some acrobatic plays from Dwyane Wade, and yet another 3-pointer from Miller to build a 90-65 lead.
The Thunder were exhausted and bewildered, unable to make any impact despite the obvious advantage in athleticism. Durant tried to carry the club on his bony shoulders but he had little help. Russell Westbrook missed 13 of his first 17 shots, and no other Oklahoma City player reached double figures through three quarters.
“Their defense is really good,’’ Durant said. “Those guys are really good over there. I didn’t want to admit it during the series, but now that it’s over, those guys are really good.’’
The game was essentially done with the Heat leading, 95-71, only leaving the countdown to James’s first NBA title and verifying Pat Riley’s decision to bring together three All-Stars and surround them with solid but not spectacular players, hoping it would work.
“Man this process is unbelievably hard,’’ Wade said. “And I don’t care who you put on a team. To be a champion would be the hardest thing you do in sports.
“Two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was. But we had to go through what we had to through last year. We needed to. And as much as it hurt, we had to go through pain and suffering.’’