MIAMI // Best player in the game. Best team in the league.
Now NBA champion, too.
LeBron James is finally savouring it all since taking his talents to South Beach.
"Happiest day of my life," he said.
James had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, leading the Heat in a 121-106 rout of the Oklahoma City Thunder last night to win the NBA finals in five games.
All that was left was a celebration nine years in the making – and two years after his acrimonious parting from the Cavaliers.
"It means everything," James said moments before being named the play-offs MVP to go along with his regular-season award. "I made a difficult decision to leave Cleveland but I understood what my future was about. I knew we had a bright future [in Miami]. This is a dream come true for me. This is definitely when it pays off."
James left the game along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for good with 3:01 remaining for a round of hugs and the start for a party he has been waiting for since arriving in the NBA out of high school as the No 1 pick of the 2003 draft. James hopped up and down in the final minutes, shared a long hug with opponent Kevin Durant, and then smiled as he watched the confetti rain down from the rafters.
"It's about damn time. It's about damn time," James said.
He was a choker last year, the guy who came up small in the fourth quarter, mocked for "shrinking" in the moment while playing with what he called "hatred" in trying to prove his critics wrong.
He came to Miami seeking an easier road to the finals but found it tougher than hoped, the Heat coming up empty last year and nearly getting knocked out in the Eastern Conference finals this time by Boston. Facing elimination there, James poured in 45 points on the road to force a Game 7 and the Heat won it at home.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done as a basketball player," James said. "You just put a lot of hard work into it and you hope that one day it will pay off for you."
This time, with a chance to clinch, the Heat took control in the second quarter, briefly lost it and blew the game open again in the third behind their role players, James content to pass to wide-open 3-point shooters while the Thunder focused all their attention on him.
The disappointment of losing to Dallas in six games a year ago vanished in a blow-out of the demoralised Thunder, who got 32 points and 11 rebounds from Durant.
Bosh and Wade, the other members of the Big Three who sat alongside James as he promised titles at his Miami welcoming party, both had strong games. Bosh, who wept as the Heat left their own court after losing Game 6 last year, finished with 24 points and Wade scored 20. The Heat also got a huge boost from Mike Miller, who made seven 3-pointers and scored 23 points.
That all made it easier for James, the most heavily scrutinised player in the league since his departure from Cleveland, when he announced he was "taking his talents to South Beach" on a TV special called "The Decision" that was criticised everywhere from water coolers to the commissioner's office. James has said he wishes he handled things differently, but few who watched the Cavs fail to assemble championship talent around him could have argued with his desire to depart.
He found in Miami a team where he never had to do it alone, though he reminded everyone during this sensational postseason run that he still could when necessary. He got support whenever he needed it in this series, from Shane Battier's 17 points in Game 2 to Mario Chalmers' 25 in Game 4.
In the clincher it was Miller, banged up from so many injuries that he limped from the bench to scorer's table when he checked in. He made his fourth 3-pointer of the half right before James's fast-break basket capped a 15-2 run that extended Miami's lead to 53-36 with 4:42 remaining in the first half.
The Thunder were making a remarkably early trip to the finals just three years after starting 3-29, beating the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs along the way. With Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden all 23 or younger, the Thunder have the pieces in place for a lengthy stay atop the Western Conference.
But their inexperience showed in this series, a few questionable decisions, possessions and outright mistakes costing them in their franchise's first finals appearance since Seattle lost to Chicago in 1996. Westbrook scored 19 but made only four of his 20 shots, unable to come up with anything close to his 43-point outing in Game 4, and Harden finished a miserable series with 19.
"It hurts, man," Durant said. "We're all 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 didn't want to just make it there. Unfortunately we lost, so it's tough."
Nothing they did could have stopped James, anyway.
Appearing fully over the leg cramps that forced him to sit out the end of Game 4, he was dominant again, a combination of strength and speed that is practically unmatched in the game and rarely seen in its history.
Wade skipped to each side of the court before the opening tip with arms up to pump up the fans, then James showed them nothing wrong with his legs, throwing down an emphatic fast-break dunk to open the scoring. He made consecutive baskets while being fouled, showing no expression after the second, as if he had hardly even known he was hit. Drawing so much attention from the Thunder, he started finding his wide-open shooters, and the Heat built a nine-point lead before going to the second up 31-26.
Oklahoma City got back within five early in the third before consecutive 3-pointers by Chalmers and Battier triggered a 27-7 burst that made it 88-63 on another 3-pointer by Miller. James did not even score in the run until it was almost over, hitting a pair of free throws after he was flagrantly fouled by Derek Fisher while powering toward the basket.
Gone was the tentative player who was mocked for shrinking on the big stage last year, too willing to defer to others who did not possess half his talents. This time, he was at peace off the court and on attack on it, vowing to have no regrets and playing in such a way they would not be necessary.
James promised multiple titles at his welcoming party, and the Heat have three pieces to build around. Pat Riley will have to fill some holes on the roster, but will likely find some players eager to come to Miami for the good weather and great chance to win.
Miller was one of them last year, and though injuries have ruined his effectiveness, his shooting turned this into the only blow-out of the series after Miami had outscored Oklahoma City by just 389-384 over the first four games.
[ @SprtNationalUAE ]