MIAMI — As Miami Heat owner Micky Arison tip-toed through his team’s locker-room in his black loafers, cigar in mouth and baseball cap covering his soaked hair, an ESPN NBA analyst gave me an excellent piece of advice.
“Learn a lesson from me,” he said. “Next time, wear old shoes.”
In the locker room, I stepped in a puddle of what was undoubtedly a mixture of Dom Perignon, Moet, and Budweiser—the three types of alcoholic concoctions sprayed in abundance in the home team’s inner haven.
The long line of media attempting to enter the locker room made me believe I was standing in line at either Cameo or LIV—two of South Beach’s most renowned hot spots. Inside, champagne-soaked napkins littered the temporarily laminated carpet, and corks, women, and sounds of Jay-Z completed the transformation.
After two long years, the Miami Heat’s core had earned this. They’d sacrificed, they’d worked, and they’d played. In Game 5, Mike Miller had embodied their spirit. After all was said and done, he could barely stand. Hunched over, his hands on his knees, he waited to speak with the press. His 23 points rolled the Thunder right out of the series. His seven 3-pointers buried them. In his press conference, Miller strongly hinted he’d retire. In what may be his final game, he truly left it all out there.
He and the five other members of LeBron James’ Heat that scored in double figures in Game 5 helped the regular season and NBA Finals MVP accomplish what has been nine years in the making. Together, after Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals, they could collectively call themselves champions.
The final score, 121-106, made the game seem closer than it actually was. The fourth quarter was a mere formality after the Heat romped and stomped the Thunder and outscored them 36-22 in the third period. Leading by 24 points heading into the final frame, there was never a doubt that tonight would be the night that James had waited for.
As the red, yellow, and white confetti streamed down from high up above and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” blared through the lower bowl of the American Airlines Arena, chants of “Let’s Go Heat” reduced every word spoken by Commissioner David Stern and ESPN’s Stuart Scott to mere murmurs. Arena security, maintenance workers, and Miami Heat employees hugged, slapped hands, and pumped their fists.
This was their moment, too.
Inside of the Thunder’s locker-room, the scene was somber and quiet. Kendrick Perkins was overcome with emotion. James Harden looked in the mirror, brushed his hair, sighed, and looked again. Eric Maynor, the team’s primary backup point guard who was sorely missed, spoke to a few members of the media and ensured us that the he—and his team—would be back.
All the while, the team’s leader, Kevin Durant, sat in silence. He was surrounded by media, yet he was all alone. In his white Converse sneakers and red pants, his iPhone was his salvation. And after he met with the press and Dwyane Wade privately embraced him, Durant politely nodded in response to Wade’s words of encouragement. He then silently tiptoed out to the team’s bus with his friend and teammate, Russell Westbrook.
“We’re gonna see you again,” Wade said to him. “I know we’re gonna see you again.”
On his walk back to the locker room, Wade, in all his glory, exchanged pleasantries with any and everybody. He bounced around energetically with the Larry O’Brien trophy tucked underneath his arm.
“Tonight,” Wade said. “It was our time.”
In his press conference, James answered questions about his journey as a professional and what it was like to finally earn the right to be called “champion.” And once he stepped down from the podium and hugged and high-fived his friend and former teammate Damon Jones, James politely declined an offer from one of the 40 people trailing him to assist him with carrying the Larry O’Brien trophy and Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy back to the locker-room.
“Nope, I got it,” James said matter-of-factly.
He told us about his story and his growth. He told us of his mistakes. He told us of the hard work it took to get to this point, and he told us of the burden he personally carried after losing last year’s finals to the Mavericks.
He carried it all, so it was only fitting that he would walk off the podium for the last time during this season, carrying what he had earned.
And as he disappeared into the throng of media, the Heat’s locker-room began to empty. For once, the whiteboard was blank. There was no work to be done and no game plans to discuss. It was over.
The only conversation being had for basketball reasons were between ESPN’s J.A. Adande and Chris Broussard and James’ long-time friend and business manager, Maverick Carter. Carter, wearing a black and white “Witness” T-Shirt, agreed with the rest of us: the Thunder should have played zone.
Meanwhile, Juwan Howard, on cloud nine, exchanged hugs with no less than eight people. All the while, Ronny Turiaf sat silently in his locker stall with his head in his hands. Norris Cole’s mother, Diane, spoke with a CBS Miami reporter and said how thankful she was that the Heat family embraced her son, and that she couldn’t be happier for him.
For all 15 members of the Miami Heat, the road to this point wasn’t without bumps, twists, and turns. As Chris Bosh embraced his wife Adrienne and doused her with celebratory champagne, he summed it up in three words.
“We did it,” he said.
And they each played their part.
In the end, the Thunder couldn’t solve the riddle that is the Miami Heat. They couldn’t overcome James Harden’s 38 percent shooting from the field and they couldn’t quite figure out how to stop the Heat’s half-court execution.
In Game 5, the Thunder hoped for Russell Westbrook to have a similar showing as he did in Game 4 when he scored 43 mostly amazing points. Instead, he gave them only 19 and shot only 4-for-20. And although Durant had a good all-around performance, he turned the ball over seven times and didn’t have much help from his teammates.
After turning down a three-year extension from the Thunder worth a reported $11 million, coach Scott Brooks’s refusal to employ a zone defense may haunt him and his club as much as their failure to execute down the stretch of Games 2, 3, and 4 undoubtedly will.
In the end, though, we all expect the Oklahoma City Thunder to return to the NBA’s grand stage. Better, stronger, and wiser.
And here, on this night, James echoed those same sentiments. “The Thunder are going to be a team to be reckoned with for a lot of years,” he said. “They’re going to use this experience as motivation.”
He continued, “Kevin Durant is a hell of a player.” He chuckled and added, “Hopefully I won’t continue to have to run into him.”
Selfishly, as basketball fans, we can hope for the opposite.
Now, as the final chapter is written on the 2012 NBA Season—Durant’s fifth and James’ ninth—we should hope to see many great battles featuring two of the top players in the game. We all know, though the Heat won the series in a fifth game blowout, this series was much more competitive than that.
If James is to deliver eight championships to the Miami Heat, he’ll probably have to go through Durant at least a few more times. And looking ahead, Durant’s Thunder will attempt to do what Kobe’s Lakers and LeBron’s Heat have proven can be done: Use a loss in the NBA Finals as motivation to go out and win it the following year.
There’s no way of knowing whether or not James will actually get his eight championships. But tonight, on this night, eight is not the most important number.
And it’s not two, not three, not four…
One championship. One ring. One Finals MVP.
After amassing a multitude of NBA records and hardware, and after being the face of the league for a number of years, James can finally call himself a champion.
In his own words, “It’s about damn time.”
Moke Hamilton is a Senior NBA Columnist for SheridanHoops.com and is on assignment in Miami for the NBA Finals. Follow him on Twitter.