Posted May 12 2011 12:09AM
MIAMI -- An NBA championship was not won last night. It only felt like it, looked like it and seemed like it at American Airlines Arena, where there was a changing of the guard. And the small forward.
It was too much Dwyane Wade at the start against the Celtics, and definitely too much LeBron James at the finish, and a whole lot of emotion when the Heat assured that the East will send a new face to the NBA Finals next month.
LeBron, in particular, was misty-eyed moments after he brought the Celtics to tears, scoring the final 10 points of Game 5 in a blizzard of 3-point shots, a steal and a driving layup. This was his series, because he crumbled against these very same Celtics a year ago as a member of the Cavaliers, and watched his brand collapse as well. And this was his game, seized by the finest three minutes of his basketball life.
So he closed his eyes and knelt at midcourt, overcome by a beating heart and a lumpy throat. Then he took a hug from Celtics coach Doc Rivers and finally, a tight embrace from Wade, who had to be fished out from the crowd, where he was swallowed up after chasing a loose ball at the buzzer.
What was churning inside LeBron's headband?
"Everything," he said. "Everything that happened this summer, the decision to come down to this team. All the backlash I got from it. It is not about the individual. I am happy we got through it as a team. It was just very emotional at that point."
How emotional? Enough for LeBron to give a "my bad" -- officially, regretfully and dare we say, honestly -- for arriving here, to this point, in the manner in which he did.
"I apologize for the way it happened. (Pause.) But I knew this opportunity was once in a lifetime, in order for me to move on in my career, to be able to come down here to this organization."
Well. That may not be enough for Cleveland to re-raise the "Witness" billboard. But strictly from a basketball standpoint, we did witness a new beginning for LeBron (endearing, maybe?) and the team he helped make. Respect must be paid, even if grudgingly so by the haters, for the way LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh have figured it out, seven months later. They opened the season by losing to the Celtics, sputtered to a 9-8 start, endured constant abuse and scorn, and now just erased the Celtics in five to become a real threat to keep ticking folks off.
"Those three guys are tough," said Rivers. "Those two guys are monsters. When they're making their jump shots, they're tough to beat."
Some perspective here: Miami is only halfway through the LeBron Buffet -- the Sixers were breakfast, the Celtics lunch -- but for a few moments last night, the belly was full because it contained the corpse of the Celtics. Yes, it's true Boston winged it with a one-armed Rajon Rondo. And the Celtics had only three starters on the floor in the final, crucial moments.
But beating the dominant team in the East of the last three years was symbolic, if nothing else. It was an important and necessary step for the Heat, to earn this gold star, to get confirmation that they are worthy of representing the East in the NBA Finals. Even if nobody outside of Miami seems to want them to.
All you had to see was Wade scoring 23 points in the first half and LeBron going bananas after an 87-all tie. There were 34 points and 10 rebounds from Wade, 33 points from LeBron. The Celtics were tagged by the finest tag-team going, and these two players will most assuredly make the Heat the favorite to grab the trophy here in a new NBA world where the Celtics, Lakers and Spurs, the proud old guard, no longer reside.
Wade: "The things we went through over the summer, the summer of LeBron, the Boston Celtics were on our minds."
LeBron: "That was the team I wanted to get over the hump against."
So it's Miami to the East finals, the team formed with the purpose of winning a championship, now with a chance to win one -- or at least the conference title. Although, given their star power, would you rule against the Heat winning the whole shebang at this point, despite their obvious flaws (center, point guard, depth)?
The Heat may never be the people's champion, but even their perceived hatred can and should only go so far. They're the most intriguing team alive, if not the most closely followed. We turn the floor over to Rivers, who couldn't have said it better:
"I've never seen a team more criticized in my life, and a guy, LeBron, criticized for doing what was legal," Rivers said. "He didn't break a law, and he didn't do anything wrong. The preseason parade may have been a little much, but other than that?
"I just told him good luck and keep going. He was very emotional, and good for him. I don't think you can play this sport and be a winner without emotion. For me, it was good to see.
"I didn't like (the criticism) because I thought it helped them. They got booed for everything. I said it all year that I wished (the media) would leave them alone, because it allowed them to go through something and prepare for the playoffs."
And here they are. So deal with it. Because the Heat certainly have.
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