Commentary

Miami stint separated agony from ecstasy when the heat was on

This is the NBA title that LeBron James will be remembered for.

The two that he won with the Miami Heat seem like a mere preface now, in order for the magnitude of this most recent title achievement to be appreciated.

In fact, Cleveland Cavaliers fans with long memories might even label James' acrimonious 2010 departure a "necessary evil", which allowed him to earn the two titles but more importantly, understand what it takes to win an unprecedented title for a city tortured by half a century of sporting misses.

From being 1-3 down to the Golden State Warriors in the best-of-seven NBA Finals series, he did everything possible to turn the tide the Cavs' way.

In Game 7, it wasn't just his triple-double. It wasn't just his superhuman block on Andre Iguodala which kept the Warriors from taking the lead in the dying minutes. It wasn't just his sly trash-talking with an under-performing Stephen Curry that got under his rival's skin.

We almost forgot James' promise to eventually land Cleveland a title on his return to his home state team. It was a dramatic story arc that could have threatened to drown the remaining years of his career in unfulfilled promises. While James insisted that it was a "long-term" project, deep down he knew that the pressure to deliver would intensify with each barren season.

No, it was also evident in the subtle trust he had in his colleagues. His 11 assists may have contributed to his triple-double statistical feat, but what's more significant is that none of the other Cavs players had more than three assists.

In short, rather than putting the entire winning responsibility on his broad shoulders - a la retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant - he spread the wealth readily, even when his team-mates did not hit their shots at first.

Gradually, they did and James was astute enough to let the likes of J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson - two guys notorious for forcing bad shots - make crucial baskets that kept the team in the game in the second half.

Then, as the coup de grace, he let sidekick Kyrie Irving land the biggest shot of the game, the three-pointer that gave the Cavs the lead for good at 92-89.

All this would not have happened had he not been schooled in the agonising Finals defeats in 2007, 2011, 2014 and last year, in addition to those sweet wins in 2012 and 2013. He controlled his urge to take over like a "hero" and, in doing so, he ironically controlled Game 7 better than anyone else.

So much has been said about the Cavs' unprecedented NBA Finals comeback, and the Warriors' heartbreaking capitulation that marred a record-breaking regular season.

Yet, as Golden State dominated NBA chatter all season, we almost forgot James' promise to eventually land Cleveland a title on his return to his home state team.

It was a dramatic story arc that could have threatened to drown the remaining years of his career in unfulfilled promises. While James insisted that it was a "long-term" project, deep down he knew that the pressure to deliver would intensify with each barren season.

Which was why he wept and kneeled on the court, overcome by what he and his team-mates had achieved on Sunday. Another couple of years of near misses, and he would be called a failure. Those were the stakes.

That won't happen any more. In Ohio, in Cleveland, in his nearby hometown of Akron, he is now guaranteed royalty status to fit his "King James" moniker. His team-mates can probably enjoy free passes in Cleveland for the rest of their lives.

And his status as one of the greatest players in NBA history has been enshrined beyond all doubt.

Much was made about James' 2-4 NBA Finals win-loss record before this series began. It needed NBA legend Jerry West - who was cursed with a 1-8 record after being perennially beaten by the Boston Celtics in the 1960s - to come out to defend him.

As James was still some way from matching the achievements of Michael Jordan (six NBA titles), Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Magic Johnson (five each), some had been reluctant to put him among the pantheon of NBA greats.

But by singularly engineering an unprecedented Finals comeback, he stands out from all the other legends who have preceded him. Couple that with delivering on his promise to Cleveland, and it is one heck of a riposte to his nay-sayers.

While James has added a new layer of mystique to his great career, what's left for the defeated Warriors?

In a way, their pursuit of the Chicago Bulls' regular-season record ultimately came back to bite them. No doubt, the 73-9 mark was glorious, but the cruelty of American sports is that champions are unearthed only after gruelling play-off runs. And as defending champions who had gone deep into the previous season's play-offs while other teams were resting in the post-season, the fatigue clock was already ticking when this season started, long before the untimely injuries came.

Arguably, the seeds of this Finals loss were sown back in the first round of the NBA play-offs two months ago, when Curry hurt his ankle and knee against the Houston Rockets. He came back after two weeks, but was never the consistent force from then on.

To his team's credit, they helped paper over Curry's physical woes by taking turns to step up. Yet Game 7 is the kind of game that defines franchise stars; James understands that, one hopes Curry - who struggled with just 17 points on Sunday - will learn from this painful loss and triumph come the next opportunity.

Will there be another rematch in next year's NBA Finals? It would seem logical, even if the two sides tinker with a couple of personnel changes.

But it would be a tall order to top this enthralling series where, for 333 of the 336 total minutes played in the Finals, the total score between these two teams was tied at 699-699.

Three minutes, and four Cavaliers points - that was all that separated James' joy from Curry's anguish.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'Miami stint separated agony from ecstasy when the heat was on'. Print Edition | Subscribe