MIAMI – LeBron James is the King again.
After the Miami Heat saved their season with an improbable comeback in Game 6, James made sure that would be one of the great moments in a championship season as he singlehandedly carried the Heat to a second consecutive NBA title with a masterful 37-point performance, including the decisive jumper with 27.9 seconds left as Miami defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 95-88, in Game 7 at AmericanAirlines Arena Thursday night.
After Tim Duncan missed two attempts from mere feet to tie the score, James came off a pick and roll and drained an open 19-footer for a 92-88 lead. Then Manu Ginobili committed San Antonio’s 15th turnover and James hit two more free throws to seal it.
James, perhaps one of the most talented but maligned players in NBA history, burned the Spurs repeatedly with his improved perimeter jumper. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s strategy was to clog the middle and force James to shoot jumpers. On Thursday he cooperated, making 5 of 10 3-pointers to go with 12 rebounds.
San Antonio never led in the fourth quarter but pushed the Heat to the final minute, when Duncan missed a layup and putback that could have tied the score with 45 seconds left. James then worked the clock down, dribbled right off the pick and roll and nailed the shot.
“It became time,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James, who snapped out of a slump in Game 6 and spearheaded Miami’s charge. “He always rises to the occasion when it matters most, when the competition is fiercest. You’re always happy for guys when they’re so dedicated. And we all know his work ethic.”
The Heat became the first team since the 2009-10 Lakers to repeat and it verifies the collection of the Miami Big Three, which was criticized since that July night in 2010 when James said he was headed for South Beach.
The Spurs can only look back to a blown 5-point lead with 28.2 seconds left in Game 6 and some miscues in Game 7 as what denied them a fifth title in 15 years. San Antonio shot just 37.8 percent in the most important game of the season and missed 13 of 19 3-pointers. The duo of Tony Parker and Danny Green were a combined 4 of 24 shooting.
Yet they had their chances until James imposed his will.
“Players step up in the playoffs. Tonight was a great example of that with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James,” Popovich said. They played Hall-of-Fame basketball tonight. That’s some of the best basketball they both played at the same time throughout the entire playoff from what I saw.”
After Ginobili raced to the basket for a runner with 5.2 seconds left in the third quarter for a 71-69 lead, Mario Chalmers dribbled up the floor for an uncontested 3-pointer that he banked in from 28 feet. Afterward, as his teammates headed to the bench in delight, Chalmers stood and surveyed the crowd, who were in a frenzy.
It ended a Spurs’ run that had resulted in a 67-64 lead. Kawhi Leonard, the 21-year-old second-year forward, was matching James hoop for hoop
As the jitters dissipated, the teams began executing their game plans. The Spurs were content to allow James to shoot from the perimeter while Wade, with his gimpy knees, roamed free from mid-range. The two scored 21 of Miami’s final 23 points of the second quarter as it became apparent the Big Two were going to do it all.
A Wade layup gave Miami a 37-32 lead before the Spurs went on a 10-2 run behind an improved Ginobili, who scored 4 points in the surge as he avoided the costly turnovers of Game 6. His two free throws gave the Spurs a 42-40 lead. Wade quickly tied the score with a layup and following two Tony Parker free throws, James added a tip-in and Wade thrilled the crowd with one of his customary 16-foot fadeaways for a 46-44 lead.
San Antonio, vying to become the first team to win a Game 7 on the road since the 1978 Washington Bullets, were close despite shooting 35 percent and getting two free throws from Danny Green, who hit 25 3-pointers in the first five games but just one in Game 6. Green looked lost at times during Game 7., throwing ill-advised passes or losing his dribble.
Still Popovich had to be pleased with the score after a mistake-filled first half.
Both teams made more mistakes than baskets in this first decisive NBA Finals game since the Lakers beat the Celtics in 2010. The clubs were a combined 14-for-41 shooting with seven turnovers in an ugly opening period.
Yet, if an unexpected standout was going to emerge in Game 7, Shane Battier was the top candidate after converting two 3-pointers to give the Heat an 18-15 lead. Battier, who has struggled with his shot throughout the postseason and was benched in favor of Mike Miller, hit two open, long-range shots to thrill the Miami crowd. The second capped an 8-0 run for a 3-point lead.
Battier extended the lead to 21-16 with a 3-pointer 45 seconds into the second quarter, giving him 9 points in just four minutes.
Before the game, Popovich said the key for his club was to move forward from the nightmarish loss in Game 6, in which the Spurs blew a 5-point lead with 28.2 seconds left. The Spurs spent late Tuesday night at a team-bonding dinner attempting to suppress the ill feelings.
After a rugged first quarter, the Spurs played as if they had put that misery in the past, and it eventually became a classic Game 7.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe