The Miami Heat's LeBron James smiles during a post game news conference following Game 7 of the NBA basketball championship game against the San Antonio Spurs, Friday, June 21, 2013, in Miami.
MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James will always remember his first championship. History will remember this one.
MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade was walking down the hallway toward the Miami Heat locker room in the wee hours of Friday morning, still in uniform and fussing with the new championship hat atop his head as his team and their families were in the midst of partying the night away.
He stopped briefly and assessed the celebration.
"We're getting pretty good at these," Wade said.
That's understandable, the Heat are getting plenty of practice at throwing themselves end-of-season parties. Four trips to the NBA Finals since 2006, three championships in that span and with the last two titles coming consecutively, it's making the decisions that the Heat and LeBron James made three summers ago look pretty smart.
By topping San Antonio in Game 7 of a back-and-forth NBA Finals on Thursday, the Heat became the sixth franchise in league history to win consecutive championships. It's their third title overall; only four clubs have more. And for James, it capped two seasons where he won all he could — two regular-season MVPs, two titles, two Finals MVPs, even an Olympic gold medal.
"It feels great. This team is amazing. And the vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true," James said. "Through adversity, through everything we've been through, we've been able to persevere and to win back to back championships. It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm happy to be part of such a first-class organization."
James said winning his first title was the toughest thing he's ever done.
It's now the second-toughest. Defending the crown, he said, was even more arduous. He was exhausted when it was over — and still scored 37 points in the finale, more than he posted in any other postseason game this season.
"Believe in LeBron," Heat President Pat Riley said.
Miami did, all the way to the end.
The Heat rolled past Milwaukee in a first-round sweep, needed five games to oust Chicago in the second round, but then went to the seven-game limit against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals and then to the last game again against the Spurs, who actually were 21 seconds away from ending the series in six games before James and the Heat engineered a huge rally.
Without that comeback, a championship-or-bust season would have gone bust.
Instead, legacies were enhanced, more trophies were hoisted, and Miami's place atop the NBA landscape was cemented.
"To be in the championship three years in a row, to win two of those three, is unbelievable," Wade said. "Everybody can't get to the Finals and win six in a row, like win six and not lose one like Michael Jordan. Everyone don't do that. But we are excited about the future of this organization. We are still a good team. And we're going to do everything we can to make sure that we can stay competitive."
Moves will be made, of course. The Heat have some luxury-tax concerns to address, and it would be a shock if they didn't try to get even better through a trade or free agency.
"All it's about now is what's in front of us," Riley said.
Then again, if James keeps getting better, Miami's place in history will probably only rise.
At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, James has a combination of size, speed and strength that seems unmatched in the NBA world. After Miami lost the 2011 finals to Dallas, James decided to improve his post play by working with Hakeem Olajuwon. Last season, his focus was on enhancing his mid-range jumper, something he continued working on throughout the season with Ray Allen.
So with about a half-minute left and the Heat up by two points, it was that mid-range jumper that sealed Miami's title. James delivered with 27.9 seconds left to make it a two-possession game. Not long afterward, he had the Larry O'Brien Trophy in one arm, the Finals MVP trophy in the other, ready for a well-deserved break from basketball.
"I want to be, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game," James said. "And I will continue to work for that, and continue to put on this uniform and be the best I can be every night."
James has already put himself in that best-ever conversation.
"We all know his work ethic," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who spent part of his first day as a two-time champion coach at Jim Larranaga's basketball camp at the University of Miami. "It's probably unique for a guy who has been the best in the game since he was in seventh grade. Usually you wouldn't have the type of work ethic that would match that type of talent."
Jordan won six titles, James only has two. But if that's the sole standard, then Jordan isn't even close either, considering Bill Russell won 11 rings in his Boston career. Russell was there for the Heat title clincher, served as part of the on-court trophy presentations, then retreated to a small room not far from the Miami locker room as players meandered in for one of the immediate perks of winning a title — a photo shoot with the trophy.
James posed for hundreds of photos during his time in there. Camera clicks were a constant sound for about 10 minutes when he was in the room. And before he left, he and Wade waved for Russell to come join them for some more snapshots.
"Get the legend up here," James shouted.
Russell walked to the front of the room as a few people, mostly Heat employees and family members, clapped. He shook hands with the Heat stars, then turned around to face the cameras and said something to James that was barely audible to those even a few feet away.
"You earned this one," Russell said.
James' grin became even broader, and camera shutters kept on whirring. Suddenly, that oft-mocked, oft-replayed "not two, not three, not four" answer James gave during the Heat celebration of their free agency coup in 2010 doesn't look like such a punch line anymore.
"I always felt that when he got up to five, six, seven that he was joking a little bit, but the media decided to take him very seriously," Heat managing general partner Micky Arison said. "I think right now he's real happy with two and next year he'll be worried about three."
James has played 10 seasons now. Including playoffs, his scoring average is 27.6, third-best in league history behind only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Since the league began charting plus-minus (the point differential when a player is on the court), James' teams have outscored opponents by 3,861 points with him in regular-season and playoff games. Second-best on that list? Wade, at 2,301 points. That gap is simply huge.
With an average season next year, he'll move into the Top 25 in all-time regular-season scoring. He got more rebounds per game this season than ever before, shot the 3-pointer better than ever before, punctuating that by making five in Game 7 of the finals. And here's what might be truly frightening for opponents: For the sixth straight year, James' shooting percentage got better.
"Hopefully people will leave him alone a little more now," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "He takes a lot of heat, I think undeservedly. He's the best player on the planet. And hopefully now with two titles, he'll get more the benefit of the doubt. But, you know, he's the best. He's the best right now."
So are the Heat. And that can't be argued.
The Celtics, Lakers and Bulls are the only franchises to win three straight titles. That will be the challenge for the Heat next year, to take a great run and make it a truly elite run.
For now, though, James wants no part of that conversation. He's going to enjoy this one for a good long while.
"It's the ultimate," James said. "I don't want to think about next year right now, what our possibilities are next year. Got to take full advantage of this one. It's an unbelievable moment for our team."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.
The way the Heat won — or the way James wouldn't let them lose — makes them one of the greats.
A Game 6 comeback when it appeared to be over, then a stirring Game 7 victory over a proud opponent cemented a place with the NBA's giants for this Miami team and its leader.
"Last year when I was sitting up here with my first championship, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done," James said. "This year, I'll tell last year he's absolutely wrong. This was the toughest championship right here between the two."
And the San Antonio Spurs will always know it's a title they let slip away.
James scored 37 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a 95-88 victory Thursday night in a tense game that was tight until Miami pulled away in the final minute.
Capping their best season in franchise history — and perhaps the three-superstar system they used to build it — the Heat ran off with the second straight thriller in the NBA's first championship series to go the distance since 2010.
Two nights after his Game 6 save when the Heat were almost eliminated, James continued his unparalleled run through the basketball world, with two titles and an Olympic gold medal in the last 12 months.
"I work on my game a lot throughout the offseason," said James, who was MVP for the second straight finals. "I put a lot of work into it and to be able to come out here and (have) the results happen out on the floor is the ultimate. The ultimate. I'm at a loss for words."
He made five 3-pointers, defended Tony Parker when he had to, and did everything else that could ever be expected from the best player in the game.
The Heat became the NBA's first repeat champions since the Lakers in 2009-10, and the first team to beat the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
"It took everything we had as a team," Dwyane Wade said. "Credit to the San Antonio Spurs, they're an unbelievable team, an unbelievable franchise. This is the hardest series we ever had to play. But we're a resilient team and we did whatever it took."
Players and coaches hugged afterward — their respect for each other was obvious from the opening tipoff of Game 1 through the final buzzer.
A whisker away from a fifth title two nights earlier, the Spurs couldn't find a way to win it all in what was perhaps the last shot for Tim Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili to grab another ring together.
"In my case I still have Game 6 in my head," Ginobili said. "Today we played an OK game, they just made more shots than us. LeBron got hot. Shane (Battier), too. Those things can happen. But being so close and feeling that you are about to grab that trophy, and seeing it vanish is very hard."
They were trying to become the first team to win a Game 7 on the road since Washington beat Seattle in 1978, but those old guys ran out of gas just before the finish.
Fans stood, clapped and danced as the clock ticked down, when every score was answered by another score, each stop followed by a better stop. The Heat pushed their lead to six points a few times midway through the fourth but San Antonio kept coming back.
Duncan had 24 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs, but missed a shot and follow attempt right under the basket with about 50 seconds left and the Spurs trailing by two.
James followed with a jumper — the shot the Spurs were daring him to take earlier in the series — to make it 92-88, sending San Antonio to a timeout as Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" blared over the arena's sound system.
He then came up with a steal and made two free throws for a six-point lead, and after Ginobili missed, James stalked toward the sideline, knowing it was over and that he was, once again, the last one standing.
Wade had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Heat, who overcame a scoreless Chris Bosh by getting six 3-pointers and 18 points from Battier.
"It was a great series and we all felt that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I don't know if 'enjoy' is the right word, but in all honesty, even in defeat, I'm starting to enjoy what our group accomplished already, when you look back. And you need to do that, to put it in perspective. So it's no fun to lose, but we lost to a better team.
"And you can live with that as long as you've given your best, and I think we have."
Streamers fell from the arena ceiling onto the fans for the second year in a row, but this one meant so much more. A narrow escape in Game 6 was still fresh in everyone's mind.
They were down 10 in the fourth quarter of that one before James led the charge back, finishing with a triple-double in Miami's 103-100 overtime victory. This one was nearly as tight, neither team leading by more than seven and the game tied 11 times.
Kawhi Leonard had 19 points and 16 rebounds for the Spurs, who had been 4 for 4 in the championship round. Ginobili had 18 points but Parker managed just 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting.
"Just give credit to the Miami Heat. LeBron was unbelievable. Dwyane was great. I just think they found a way to get it done," Duncan said. "We stayed in the game. We gave ourselves opportunities to win the game, we just couldn't turn that corner."
The Heat and coach Erik Spoelstra collected the Larry O'Brien trophy again from Commissioner David Stern, presiding over his last NBA Finals before retiring next February.
He couldn't have asked for a better way to go out.
James avenged his first finals loss, when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Spurs on 2007. That helped send James on his way to South Florida, realizing it would take more help to win titles that could never come alone.
He said he would appreciate this one more because of how tough it was. The Heat overpowered Oklahoma City in five games last year, a team of 20-something kids who weren't ready to be champions yet.
This came against a respected group of Spurs whose trio has combined for more than 100 playoff victories together and wanted one more in case this was San Antonio's last rodeo.
Duncan is 37 and Ginobili will be a 36-year-old free agent next month, the core of a franchise whose best days may be behind them.
Meanwhile, it's a potential dynasty along Biscayne Bay, but also one with a potentially small window. Wade's latest knee problems are a reminder that though he came into the NBA at the same time as James and Bosh 10 years ago, he's a couple of years older at 31 with wheels that have seen some miles.
James can become a free agent again next summer with another decision — though hopefully not another "Decision" — to make. He's comfortable in Miami and close with Wade, and the Heat have the leadership and commitment from owner Micky Arison and president Pat Riley to keep building a championship core around him.
Why would he want to leave?
"This team is amazing," James said. "And the vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true."
Notes: Home teams are 15-3 in Game 7s of the NBA Finals. ... Miami improved to 5-3 all-time in Game 7s in the postseason and became the fourth team to win the final two games at home since the finals went to a 2-3-2 format in 1985, joining the Lakers in 1988 and 2010, and Houston Rockets in 1994. ... Green was just 1 for 12, going 1 for 6 behind the arc. He started the series by making 25 3s in the first five games, a finals record for an entire series.
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