LeBron James held the two trophies Ė the NBA Championship and the Finals MVP Ė in each hand and gave a wry smile to the crowd in front of him. The 2012-13 NBA Champion Heat celebrated behind him. For the second consecutive season, he was here again. And his heroics in the last two games of the NBA calendar transformed his fate from being three-time Finals loser to back-to-back champion.
Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is in one shot. The difference between cementing a powerful legacy or falling short on the biggest stage once again is in a wild three-pointer by a particularly gifted teammate. After 1230 regular season games during a six-month period and another 78 games before the Finals began, sometimes, the fate of the NBA champion could come down to about 5.2 seconds.
A few missed free throws, a few offensive rebounds, a corner three. Bam!
In an alternate reality somewhere, we are looking at a very different end to the 2012-13 season. We are looking at Game 6, where the Spurs are seconds away from winning the game, where Chris Bosh gets an offensive rebound and passes it out to Ray Allen in the corner, but Allen misses the three. Where the clock strikes 0:00, the Spurs win the series 4-2, and they grasp to their fifth franchise championship. We are looking at two losses at the Finals in the last three years for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. We are reading stories where it is Tim Duncan and Tony Parker Ė and not LeBron Ė who are being celebrated like champions in the end.
In our world, of course, reality didnít quite unfold for such a happy ending for the Spurs. Allen made the three, the game went into Overtime, and the Heat won to force a Game 7, where they took control in the last few minutes to win the championship series 4-3. LeBron was a champion and Finals MVP once again.
Last week on NBA.com/India, Akshay Manwani and I mentioned that the Finals were a celebration for both teams; that, even though the Heat won, the Spurs were so closely matched that they were winners even in loss. But what if this wasnít the case? What if only the Spurs were the winner here, and LeBron James, despite all the hard work he put in all season, was left on the losing end?
LeBron averaged 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists a game this season on a career-best 56.5 percent shooting. He won the regular season MVP award again while enjoying the prime of his years at the peak of his powers. He was averaging 25 points a game along with near eight rebounds and seven assists through the playoffs, up to Game 5 of the Finals. But his team was down 3-2 and on the brink of a loss. We all know what happened next. LeBron went off in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to help his team make a comeback, including dropping 19 points of his own. He dominated Game 7 start to end with his outside shooting, and totalled 37 points and 12 rebounds, and hit the dagger shot in the last minute to take the game away from San Antonio and win his second championship.
If the last two games hadnít gone his way, and if the Spurs had won, would it really have made a major difference to LeBronís legacy? What are a couple of good quarters in a couple of games when there is a whole season of dominance behind him?
Yes, I say: those small but crucial moments in the biggest of games arguably matter more to the legend of a player than big moments in smaller games. Great players play greater when there is more at stake. A 37-point performance over the Spurs in November wouldíve barely mattered except for padding LeBronís otherworldly averages. But 37 points in the last game of the year made the difference between a wasted year and a successful one.
LeBron has the highest average of all players in Game 7s of a playoff series, and with 37 points against the Spurs last week, equalled the highest point total of anyone in the Game 7 of the Finals. He was always known to be a dominant force of nature, but in the last two years, he has added a new, crucial dimension to his skill-set: the ability to step up and bounce back every time it felt that he was down. At every roadblock in the past few years, LeBron has suffered the noise of criticism of what he didnít achieve from a game-to-game basis. That noise is temporary; his achievements are permanent.
Miami and LeBron didnít own these playoffs as many expected they would have, but they did just enough to survive. LeBron is a true great of the game, but due to his union with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, his recent success seems to have been forced more than naturally bloomed. Still, it doesnít blemish the facts, that he is a back-to-back Champion, MVP, Finals MVP, with two more MVP awards two more Finals appearances, and a host of other accolades in his resume.
The Finals were truly too close to call, and some could argue that the Spurs were perhaps even the better team throughout the series. But history remembers champions, not near champions. Just when it seemed that the title would be stolen from LeBron and the Heat, they fought back to reclaim it in a stunning fashion.
There is a thin line between winning and losing, and seven tight games of two closely-matched teams in the Finals were the perfect proof of that. Despite all his achievements in the past up to Game 5 of the Finals, his legacy wouldnít be what it is today without those last two games. Those last two games made LeBron a champion. And in the true anatomy of a legend, itís those little things in those brief, big moments, which can elevate a man into a myth.