LeBron James had drifted through much of Tuesday night. Confused, a little self-doubt perhaps starting to creep into him, he looked more like the shell-shocked, ineffective star who lost a season-ending Game 6 to the Dallas Mavericks here two years ago than the bold, cocksure leader who has dominated the NBA ever since.
After losing Game 5 of these NBA Finals in San Antonio, James said he embraced the challenge of having to win consecutive games at home to claim his second straight championship. Only, the pressure, once again, appeared ready to swallow him whole, the enormity of the moment too big for him to grasp.
In the end, maybe that was all James needed to jolt him. His season, his legacy, at a crossroads, the NBA's best player finally took charge,rallying these Heat – with the help of a desperate Ray Allen 3-pointer – to a thrilling 103-100 overtime victory at America Airlines Arena, delivering the league a decisive Game 7 on Thursday night.
It was one of the greatest Finals finishes ever, and James ended his night with a powerful triple-double of 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. Eighteen of those points came after the third quarter.
"It was by far the best game I've ever been a part of," James said. "The ups and downs, the roller coaster, the emotions, good and bad throughout the whole game. To be a part of something like this is something you would never be able to recreate once you're done playing the game."
The Heat were on the brink of losing Game 6 more than once. They rallied from 13 points down late in the second half only to lose the lead in the final minute of regulation to Tony Parker's heroics.
The Heat turned to James and Allen to save them. Down five, James drilled a 3-pointer with 20.1 seconds left to bring Miami within two. Kawhi Leonard was intentionally fouled, but missed the first free throw, giving the Heat the only opportunity they needed.
NBA staffers began preparing for the Spurs' championship coronation, lining a rope in front of the courtside seats to keep fans from going onto the floor. Champagne, undoubtedly, was chilling somewhere near the Spurs' locker room.
Allen ensured the bubbly would stay on ice. After James missed a 3-pointer, Bosh corralled the rebound – with Tim Duncan watching from the bench – and pitched it to the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history. Allen raised up in the corner and coolly drilled the tying shot with 5.2 seconds left. The basket saved Miami's season and will go down as one of the greatest in Finals history if the Heat win Game 7.
"Ray can be 0 for 99 in the game, and if he gets an open look, it's going down," James said. "…We've seen it before."
Said Allen: "It's going to be a shot I remember for a long time."
The Spurs, too, won't soon forget it. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made a key tactical decision that ended up helping the Heat, twice pulling his best rebounder, Duncan, to insert a smaller defender to better match up with Miami's shooters. Both possessions ended with the Spurs burned by offensive rebounds that led to James' and Allen's 3-pointers.
"It's just unfortunate the way it happened," Duncan said. "We got a stop and we got a bad bounce, and right out to Ray Allen for a three. Just situational."
The Heat trailed in overtime only to have James and Allen again pick them up. James scored a key basket inside, but also buoyed Miami's offense with his passing. The Spurs had a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds as Manu Ginobili barreled toward the rim only to have Allen take the ball from him. The possession came with Parker on the bench and a timeout left in Popovich's pocket. Parker said he was "cramping," and none of the Spurs publicly questioned Popovich's late-game substitutions – even though both critical decisions worked against them.
"There's no questions there," Duncan said. "It's the plays we've been making all season long."
Duncan delivered a first half for the ages, scoring 25 of his 30 points. Like most of his teammates, the Heat largely contained him in the final quarter. And yet after Parker drilled a tying 3-pointer with 1:27 left in regulation and followed with a 12-foot jumper, the Spurs wrested control from the Heat. Their fifth championship never seemed closer.
"We were in a great spot," Ginobili said.
At least until James, Allen and the Heat dictated otherwise. Mario Chalmers scored 20 points and helped start Miami's comeback with a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter. Mike Miller followed with another – moments after losing his shoe. James took over from there. He lost his headband, but regained his cool.
"I was just focused on the job, the task at hand," James said. "Just trying to be aggressive, just trying to figure out ways I could help the team get back in the game."
The Spurs will have less than 48 hours to pull their hearts out of the blender. Ginobili described himself as "devastated," and the rest of his teammates didn't look much better. Duncan, who appeared to twist his left knee or ankle, was limping.
If the Spurs can pick themselves up after squandering a championship that was oh so close, their goal is clear: Become the first team in 35 years to win a Finals Game 7 on the road. Not since theWashington Bullets beat the Seattle SuperSonics for the 1978 title has any team done so.
"It was a tough moment," Ginobili said. "We were a few seconds away from winning the championship and we gave it away."