Heat on High

At last, Miami's LeBron James holds the NBA championship trophy, after the Heat's 121-106 Game 5 win over Oklahomas City Thursday. James had a triple-double and was named Finals MVP. MICHAEL LAUGHLIN / Sun Sentinel
At last, Miami's LeBron James holds the NBA championship trophy, after the Heat's 121-106 Game 5 win over Oklahomas City Thursday. James had a triple-double and was named Finals MVP. MICHAEL LAUGHLIN / Sun Sentinel
Posted: June 24, 2012

 MIAMI - A week ago, they were leading the NBA Finals. And now, the Oklahoma City Thunder are home for the summer, ruminating over lessons doled out by the Miami Heat.

A year ago, with an easier path, Miami fell short of their championship goal. This time, things seemed much tougher for the Heat - which made the reward only that much sweeter.

Favorites coming into the series, the Thunder fell in Game 5 of the finals Thursday night, as Miami finished off its run to a championship by beating Oklahoma City, 121-106. The Heat's LeBron James had 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, then picked up all nine votes in balloting for the MVP award, and one tip of the cap from the Thunder's Kevin Durant.

"Like I say, I'm not one for giving guys credit during the season, but it's over with, and that guy is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable person," Durant said of his NBA Finals foe, workout partner, and, in a few weeks, Olympic teammate. "I enjoyed working out with him this summer. It was fun playing against him in the Finals, but you could just tell he was very focused from the beginning of the season."

The Heat are the NBA champions after taking an unlikely, uneasy road to the top of the pro basketball world. They were down against Indiana in the second round, down and facing elimination against Boston in the Eastern Conference title series, down yet again against Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals. And strange as this would seem, when the Heat looked most vulnerable, it turned out they were at their best.

Down two games to one to Indiana, the Heat won three straight. Down 3-2 to Boston, they won two straight. Down 1-0 to the Thunder, they swept the last four games.

"You come together," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You can either go the other way or come closer together, and you start to build some toughness. Last year's pain that we went through, even for the new guys, they inherited that pain. We told them that. And you go through those experiences together, and you're able to survive it, it's a great teacher and motivator, and I think that helped us in all the tough times this year."

Miami was rolling to the title a year ago, going 12-3 in the East playoffs and playing the role of favorite heading into the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat won Game 1, were cruising to a win late in Game 2, and then the wheels came off - not only did Miami drop that second game, that started a stretch of four losses in five games to cost them the championship.

After that, this year was championship or bust.

They didn't bust.

"Last year, it wasn't as hard, and we lost the championship," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "But we knew it was going to be hard to become champions."

There came a point this season when the Heat just knew they were built to last. Wade was dogged by injuries at times in the regular season, and the team never had more than even a three-game slide. In the playoffs, Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 against Indiana. The Heat lost Games 2 and 3 without him and trailed in Game 4 before rallying to pull out that series. And against Boston, Miami was in serious trouble, facing a win-or-else Game 6 on the road.

James had 45 points and 15 rebounds that night. The Heat won the game, won the next one to close out the Celtics, and then took four of five against the Thunder. James got his long-awaited ring, Wade and Udonis Haslem got their second championships, and every other player on the Heat roster got to enjoy celebrating with the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time.

James, Wade, Bosh and Mario Chalmers exited together with 3 minutes, 1 second left to play Thursday night, Miami by that point well on the way to a title-clincher.

Wade and James had a chat before Game 5, just silly talk about how they would envision the perfect finish. Wade said he wanted to be on the court for the clincher. James said he would rather be on the bench and celebrating by that point. James' vision was the way it turned out.

For the first time in a while, at least a few minutes seemed easy.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done as a basketball player, since I picked up a basketball when I was 9 years old," James said, referring to Miami's postseason run. "It's the hardest thing I ever done. It's not easy at all. You just put a lot of hard work into it, and hopefully one day you hope that it pays off for you. You know, this was a testament to that."

In the end, Wade didn't mind getting a three-minute head start on the offseason, either.

"We won, and we're world champions," Wade said. "One thing about this team, we saved our best for last."

Big Finals audience. The 2012 NBA Finals matched last year's average preliminary television rating with one fewer game.

The five games between the Heat and Thunder on ABC averaged an 11.8 overnight rating, the same as the 2011 Heat-Mavericks series that went six games.

The Heat's title-clinching win Thursday night earned a 12.6 overnight rating, equal to last year's Game 5.

Ratings represent the percentage of all homes with televisions tuned to a program. Overnight ratings measure the country's largest markets.

"Bird" rights ruling. The National Basketball Players Association said that arbitrator Kenneth Dam affirmed its position that players claimed off waivers can use their "Bird" and "Early Bird" rights. The union argued that Jeremy Lin, Knicks teammate Steve Novak, the Clippers' Chauncey Billups, and Portland's J.J. Hickson should be covered by the exceptions that allow clubs to exceed their salary caps to re-sign their own players.

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