MIAMI – The San Antonio Spurs took a calculated risk early in the 2013 Finals, allowing – almost daring – LeBron James to shoot jump shots, treating it as the least potent of his many poisons.
Turns out, it was one of those slow-acting toxins, taking a full seven games before crippling and finally taking the life out of the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena. James, the Miami Heat superstar whose game is the most scrutinized in basketball, adapted and overcame yet again, scoring 37 points with 12 rebounds in 45 minutes in the 95-88 Game 7 clincher.
James boosted Miami to its second consecutive NBA championship, in its third straight trip to The Finals, by launching 20 of his 23 shots from outside the paint. It was the most for him since his ballyhooed move to south Florida in July 2010.
He was perfect on the three he got inside, mind you, but James did his greatest damage from longer distances. His 9-for-20 from outside wasn’t as accurate as what he shot overall this season (56.5 percent) but it was deadly all the same, coming over San Antonio’s defense on shots that the Spurs were prepared to live with, yet could not survive.
James even hit five 3-pointers on his first seven attempts on a night when corner-and-arc specialists Ray Allen and Mike Miller were a combined 0-for-9. Shane Battier was the Miami 3-point shooter who was hot, draining six of his eight, but James was the bonus sniper on the perimeter. So much so that, with a couple more, the nitpickers who have stalked his career for impact and legacy might have complained that he doesn’t mock-shrug nearly as well as Michael Jordan.
“Two-and-half games 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 after joining Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players to win back-to-back MVP awards and NBA championships.
“I looked at all my regular-season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid-range shooters in the game. I shot a career high (40.6 percent) 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 [screens]. Don’t force the paint.’
“Just saying everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the offseason training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it.”
James went with it all the way to his second Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award, becoming the ninth player in league history to win more than one. He joined Jordan (1991-’93, 1996-’98), Hakeem Olajuwon (1994-’95), Shaquille O’Neal (2000-’02) and Kobe Bryant (2009-’10) as the only ones to win that honor in consecutive years.
The hordes who root against James, who pick at any failings in his play at any point in any game, had nothing late Thursday night. It might be a while before they have something again.
“The vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true,” he said, his 37 points the most in a Finals Game 7 since Jerry West scored 42 while losing to Boston in 1969. It bumped up James’ scoring average in Game 7 situations, already a record, to 34.4. The Heat star averaged 25.3 in these Finals, 25.9 in the 2013 postseason.
“I said before the series I was a better player than I was last time I faced the Spurs,” said James, whose Cleveland team got swept by San Antonio from the 2007 Finals. “To be able to come through for my teammates in the biggest moment on the biggest stage makes me more satisfied than anything in the world.”
This second title – they’re at the “not three” point now in their boast of multiple Larry O’Brien trophies – fulfilled a remarkable season in which Miami posted a 66-15 record in the regular season, strung together 27 victories in February and March and went 16-7 in the postseason through two seven-game challenges against Indiana and San Antonio. Winning Game 7, limiting the Western Conference champs to 17 points on six field goals and seven turnovers in the fourth quarter, and making good on the expectations and the hype triggered the expected celebration – and kept a lot of ever-ready critics off their backs for the next five months.
But this was no “Big Three” production. Dwyane Wade, Miami’s veteran and hobbled shooting guard, pulled out a performance from the days when he still had knees, scoring 23 points with 10 rebounds. “All the giddiness is the champagne talking,” said Wade, who gained his third ring (his first came in 2006) but whose future and present were questioned constantly through his gimpy postseason. “This is the sweetest one by far.”
Forward Chris Bosh, however, went scoreless in almost 28 minutes, missing his five shots. Allen and Miller gave the Heat nothing offensively, either, making Battier’s performance so vital as coach Erik Spoelstra shuffled through his deck. And much-maligned point guard Mario Chalmers, maddening at times to teammates and Heat fans, still found ways to torment the Spurs through his 6-for-15 shooting for 14 points.
Not that San Antonio needed any more torment. The Spurs already had been through a mental wringer for two days, pushing away bad memories from Game 6 and their lost failures at its end. They shook those, seemingly, and even took a 71-69 lead with five seconds left in the third quarter. But Chalmers’ buzzer-beating bank shot from 28 feet made it 72-71 and, from there, the Spurs were noble, relentless pursuers – but they never led again.
The desperation and the fatigue appeared to wear on them – the Spurs missed seven of their first 10 shots in the fourth quarter and turned over the ball five times in seven minutes. Manu Ginobili, shakier again beyond his 6-for-12 shooting and four turnovers, was an obvious goat and one of the few San Antonio players who admitted to lingering Game 6 trauma.
But Ginobili had company. Young Danny Green, a Finals record-breaker in hitting 25-for-38 3-pointers through the first five games, went 1-for-11 from that distance in the final two games. With Miami’s defense finally taking him seriously, Green shrunk in the big-game glare. He shot 1-for-12 Thursday, eventually aiming and praying the ball or passing up shots altogether.
Kawhi Leonard stepped up (19 points, 16 rebounds, exhausting defense on James) but Gary Neal and Boris Diaw stepped back. Then there was Tony Parker, who lay claim to being the league’s best point guard during the playoffs’ first three rounds and dominated Game 1 of the Finals, was 3-for-12 for 10 points and scoreless in the final quarter, a victim of James’ defensive mismatch and orchestrated Heat pressure.
Last and assuredly not least, there was Tim Duncan, poised to snag his fifth championship ring and fourth Finals MVP award had the Spurs managed to win but struggling down the stretch. It was Duncan’s turnover off an offensive rebound, trying to reset San Antonio’s possession, that set up Battier’s final 3-pointer to make it 88-82 Miami. It was Duncan forcing and missing a hook shot at 90-85. And it was Duncan missing a chance to tie – a point-blank hook and a tip – with less than a minute left that sealed the Spurs’ fate.
After a timeout, James probed from the outside, then hit – what else? – a 19-footer that made it 92-88. A short while later, after the horn and an on-court celebration that 48 hours earlier nearly had been theirs, it all was a little much for the Spurs’ great big man.
“Tough to swallow,” he said. “Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game. Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane and LeBron. Probably for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
In those moments, the spectre of James likely will loom large, his outside jump shots flying just over Duncan’s outstretched fingers. It happened several times Thursday, a challenge met and defeated, more often than San Antonio could survive.