By TIM REYNOLDS
MIAMI — LeBron James and Maverick Carter have been inseparable since they were little kids. Extremely close friends, James trusts Carter with virtually every aspect of his life.
For the last few days, they were not on speaking terms.
“I told him he’s got to be great,” Carter said. “I told him, there’s nothing wrong with a great player playing great.”
With a cigar in his mouth, and champagne and beer dripping off his T-shirt, James celebrated a second straight NBA championship Thursday night. He scored 37 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and simply controlled everything down the stretch, as the Heat won the third title in franchise history with a 95-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7.
“This team is amazing,” James said. “And the vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true.”
Two days after helping the Heat survive a wild Game 6 in overtime, James’ final numbers went like this: 12 for 23 from the field, 5 for 10 from 3-point range, 8 for 8 from the line.
And in a season where he was the league’s MVP for a fourth time, he’s now added a second ring to the collection. Suddenly, his resume is looking as complete as some of the other all-time greats. Here’s a club: He joined Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players in league history to win back-to-back Finals MVP and regular-season MVP awards.
“Listen, I can’t worry about what everybody says about me,” James said, as confetti fell around him. “I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here. That’s enough. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a No. 6 with James on the back. I’m blessed. So what everybody says about me off the court don’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.”
Dwyane Wade scored 23 points and won his third NBA title. The man who wears No. 3 on his uniform insisted that he wanted to be called “Three” afterward, for obvious reasons. Shane Battier — benched earlier in these playoffs — had 18 on six 3-pointers and said “it’s better to be timely than good,” afterward. Mario Chalmers scored 14 for the Heat, who won despite no points from Chris Bosh.
It didn’t matter. James was good enough to mask any problem the Heat had Thursday night. A series that started with three games of the Spurs supposedly bottling him up and solving the riddle of how to stop the MVP ended with him doing pretty much whatever he wanted.
“It became time,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He always rises to the occasion when it matters the most, when the competition is fiercest.”
He rarely acknowledges this much, but James has to be exhausted. He worked out furiously during the lockout in 2011, in part because he convinced himself that the season would begin on time, in part because he was still smarting from how sub-par he played during the Finals loss to the Mavericks in his first season with the Heat.
Last season began on Dec. 25, 2011. The Heat went through the rigors of that ultra-compacted 66-game schedule and won a title. James went right into training with USA Basketball, eventually helping that team win a gold medal at the London Olympics. After that, he took about two weeks off, then started getting ready for this season, which went all the way down to the last possible day.
That’s more basketball, under more pressure, than anyone else on the planet has seen in the last two years.
James took all the criticism when the Heat lost those 2011 finals. He took all the criticism in 2010, as well, when the Heat welcomed him and Bosh as Wade’s newest star teammates with a star-studded party that was planned long before James made his infamous “decision” to sign with the Heat.
Now he’s won two titles, and refuses to take all the credit.
“All it’s about now is what’s in front of us,” Heat President Pat Riley said. “Not what’s behind us. I wish people would stop talking about that. He’s been to the Finals three years in a row. He’s won two championships, two MVPs. He definitely controlled the game tonight. I believe in LeBron.”
There he was, a championship at stake, taking the jumper with 27.9 seconds left that made it a two-possession game and put the Heat on the cusp of a repeat. He marched back to the Heat huddle, punching the air. The score was 92-88, everyone in the sold-out building seemed to be standing, and a championship celebration was mere moments away.
Sure enough, it happened.
“I put a lot of work into it and to be able to come out here and see the results happen out on the floor is the ultimate, the ultimate,” James said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Two years ago, James probably wouldn’t have taken that shot. Now, there’s no way he would not. And he drilled it, too, the ball going through with a soft swish for his 34th and 35th points.
“What he brings every night is unbelievable,” Wade said.
James arrived at the arena in a convertible on Thursday, waving to the fans who were waiting to take a photo. An hour or so later, standing at his locker, he tried to insist that Game 7 was obviously huge but would have to be treated really like any other game.
In short, that was his way of saying that he cannot change the way he plays now.
Then he went out and did what he does best, making the right plays, hoping they become winning plays.
“He only plays one way,” said Carter, James’ longtime friend and associate. “He plays the right way.”
On the possession after James made the jumper for the four-point late lead, he got into the passing lane and intercepted a ball thrown wildly by San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili with 23.5 seconds left and was immediately fouled.
The first free throw went in, and James stepped off the line to set up Miami’s defense.
The second free throw dropped, as well, and James made a beeline for Ginobili, dribbling upcourt. Ginobili took a 3-pointer that the regular-season MVP contested, and it sailed well wide of the rim.
That was the Spurs’ last gasp. It was over. The Heat reign will continue for another year, and so will James’ spot as the unquestioned best player in the world.
“This is the hardest series we ever had to play,” Wade said. “This is what it’s all about.”
Including playoffs, the Heat became just the 10th team in NBA history to win at least 80 games — they won 82 this season. And like the other nine, the Heat won it all.
James will be getting married this summer — “Now it’s going to be one the best weddings ever,” he said — and another ring ceremony awaits him this fall when Miami tries for a three-peat. And a season that began with the addition of Ray Allen to a championship core, saw a 27-game winning streak, even a “Harlem Shake” video that broke up some needed midseason tension, and ended with Miami in the same place it was a year ago — on top of the basketball world.
“They pushed us to the limit,” James said.
Near the limit, maybe. James fended off everything the Spurs threw at him.
“Credit to the Miami Heat,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “LeBron was unbelievable. … We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
He was great, as Carter demanded.
“To be able to come through for my teammates,” James said, “in the biggest moment on the biggest stage makes me more satisfied than anything in the world.”