2017 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Decade of Dominance: LeBron James, Miami Heat climb to top of NBA heap

LeBron James and his Miami Heat at last win titles ... and end their era with a thud

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The 2017 postseason marks the 10th anniversary of LeBron James’ first run to The NBA Finals, when his play powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship series.

Since that 2007 Finals trip, James has been in The Finals six times, winning three championships in that span. He led the Cavs to the title in 2016 and, as the Cavs enter The 2017 Finals, we look back on how James’ seven career Finals appearances have shaped both his career and the NBA at large.

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The third time had to be the charm for LeBron James.

After all, how much more disappointment could he take in The Finals?

His first Finals two trips — in 2007 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and in 2011 with the Miami Heat — ended with someone else walking off with the Larry O’Brien trophy he had dreamed about for years.

Decade of Dominance series: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

There was no Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki blocking his path this time around, veteran superstars with seasoned supporting casts far greater than what LeBron had around him in either previous Finals trip.

The 2011-12 season marked a significant shift in the LeBron everyone had grown accustomed to, both on and off the court. He’d been through epic failures on the biggest stage and was forced to look inward for answers as to how to avoid those same failures in the future.

Young Thunder no match for prime LeBron

Sure, having “The Heatles” firmly entrenched in their second season together gave him a sense of security and a study foundation to finally solve the championship mystery that had been his biggest hurdle.

By the time LeBron and the Heat made it back to The Finals to face the Oklahoma City Thunder and their rising, young star trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and sixth man extraordinaire, James Harden. However, it was clear in the case of the Heat that this was a superstar and a team hardened by their Finals past.

They had trailed in the series standings in both the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals and conference finals, yet LeBron led them through the wilderness both times. And yet there was still some skepticism as to whether or not he and the Heat were truly ready to ascend to the next level.

“To me, the experience of losing in the 2011 Finals really helped prepare them for having adversity in 2012,” said Derek Fisher, who won championships alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers before serving as a veteran point guard on that Thunder team. “A lot of people don’t remember that we won the first game of that series in 2012, and so right away after losing in 2011 to the Mavericks and then out of the gate in 2012 to our Thunder team, it kind of rocker their confidence a little bit.”

But LeBron responded by playing the best and most complete basketball of his career to date, as the Heat stormed back to win four straight games and win the first of what would be back-to-back titles.

“They didn’t quite know that they were already the championship team they would become,” Fisher said. “You don’t really know you’re a champion until the final buzzer goes off and you are holding that trophy. It’s all a question mark prior to then.”

By the time LeBron grabbed that NBA Finals MVP trophy from Bill Russell, the sense of relief washed over his face for all to see.

“It’s about damn time,” he said. “It’s about damn time.”

The championship dream that had fueled him was finally fulfilled.

“My dream has become a reality now, and it’s the best feeling I ever had,” LeBron said in the wildly emotional aftermath of winning that first title.

Heat dominate on way to another Finals

If anyone thought that meant he’d be satisfied with just one, however, had no idea what was coming. “The Heatles” were just getting started. That none of it had come easy only bolstered LeBron and the Heat’s internal belief that their championship density was indeed meant to be.

“Once you experience it for he first time I don’t think there is any other feeling you want to have,” Fisher said. “No season after that should ever end without you winning a championship. It belongs to you. Every time I see the trophy now, I want to go over to it like it’s mine. That’s how you should feel. I think for LeBron and his teams, that’s how they feel year in and year out. That the trophy belongs to them and they have every right to own it as any other team does.”

That was certainly the attitude they carried into the 2012-13 season. That third season featured LeBron, Wade and Bosh in a groove, coach Erik Spoelstra at the controls and a monster supporting cast that included former rival turned ally Ray Allen. All of that would serve them well on their journey back to The Finals.

A 66-win regular season included a surreal 27-game win streak, that is still the second-longest win streak in NBA history. The Heat needed seven games to defeat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, as they became he first team since the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of 1998 to win the Eastern Conference three straight seasons.

Their prize in The Finals? How about a San Antonio Spurs team every bit as good as the Heat and still sporting it’s own “Big Three” of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, though they had clearly aged a bit since that 2007 Finals when they swept LeBron and the Cavaliers.

Spurs, Cavs wage epic 2012 series

As the series began, Wade was dealing with a knee injury and LeBron was toting an even greater load. Staring down a determined foe with championship experience oozing out of its roster, this set the stage for an ultimate Finals moment for LeBron. Could he find a way to will the Heat through this (eventual epic seven-game) series?

The Heat had to survive Game 6, when they were seconds away from elimination down 3-2 in the series, saved only by Allen’s miraculous, step-back 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime.

Game 7 saw LeBron at his championship best, finishing off the Spurs with 37 points and 12 rebounds, closing the game in the final five minutes with eight of his points to thwart every Spurs attempt to derail his back-to-back title run.

Wade chipped in with 23 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, rising to the moment the way you’d expect a now three-time champion and Finals MVP himself (in 2006). Bosh, shockingly, went scoreless.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, his team still smarting from being seconds away from the other side before Allen’s shot in Game 6, captured what the world witnessed.

“They played Hall of Fame basketball tonight,” he said of both LeBron and Wade. “That’s some of the best basketball they both played at the same time throughout the entire playoffs, from what I saw.”

Heat era faces turning point

Anyone still trying to poke holes in LeBron’s resume had to deal with some sobering facts. Not only was he a two-time champion and back-to-back Finals MVP, he got there by dealing Duncan his first (and only) Finals defeat. En route, the Heat joined the Lakers as the only teams in the post-Jordan era to win back-to-back titles.

It couldn’t get much better in Miami … unless they were really ready to win “not one, not two” but perhaps three?

Riding LeBron’s brilliance and energy more than ever throughout the 2013-14 season, the Heat and Spurs squared off again in The Finals in 2014.

For all the Heat had accomplished together, you don’t give Popovich and the Spurs a rematch and expect them to be anything other than ready to tear you apart.

LeBron at his best with Wade and Bosh showing signs of the wear and tear of four straight runs to the final day of the season was more than the Heat could handle.

The Spurs shredded the Heat with a beautiful brand of ball movement and 3-point shooting that shook the league the same way the Heat did in the summer of 2010. They shot 53 percent overal, nearly 47 percent on 3-pointers and finished with a 120.8 offensive rating, the highest for any team in a Finals since the measure was first used in 1984.

Golden State Warriors assistant and defensive guru Ron Adams told CSNBayArea.com that the Spurs’ performance was “as good as one can execute on a basketball court at any level.”

“You have these great high school teams and they’re marvelous and they execute and everyone does the right thing and everyone is in tune,” Adams said. “You have college teams like that; I’ve been a part of some college teams like that. But at the pro level, I don’t think I’ve seen anything more masterful than how they played in that particular series.”

The Spurs’ dismantling of the Heat in five games served as a crushing end to both the season and, as we’d find out later, “The Heatles” era.

LeBron’s next trip to The Finals would come in a familiar but different uniform.

Decade of Dominance: Part IV — A championship moment in Cleveland

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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