The Great Escape

Written for Deaf News Network and published on June 21, 2013

The Great Escape
How Miami snatched its second straight championship from the jaws of defeat

In the wake of the historic 27 game winning streak, the sky was the limit for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It appeared to the rest of the NBA and the country that the remainder of the season and the upcoming playoffs would likely turn into a coronation for the Heat, and the Heat’s critics were bemoaning the apparent fait accompli that had been imposed on them by sheer force. In the East, Chicago was without Derrick Rose; Indiana had lost Danny Granger earlier in the season, supposedly causing their offense to stagnate in his absence, and Boston was a hollow shell of its former self.

And in the West, only Oklahoma City emerged as the likely opponent in this year’s Finals, seemingly headed towards a titanic rematch with the team that had owned them outright last year in the 2012 NBA Finals. San Antonio was deemed a competent but aging team who would find itself drummed out of the playoffs by the Thunder, as had happened the previous year. And the mindboggling mess that was the Los Angeles Lakers was put down further on the list, with the Dwight Howard experiment now a miserable failure.

Thus the stage for the Heat’s second straight championship was set, with the world’s eyes all riveted upon LeBron and the Heat. Nothing less than a championship was expected; failure would only cause the virulent and loud critics to come out of hiding and rip both James and the team to shreds in public. It also would set back James’ quest for multiple championships by a year, maybe even more. For them, it was not a simple “win or go home” proposition; it was an explicit “win or be destroyed” challenge.

And so the playoffs began. It began on a good note for Miami, with an easy series win versus an overmatched Milwaukee Bucks team that tried their best but just didn’t have the firepower or size to keep up with the Heat. At that point, with the rest of the playoff field (and the teams’ trajectories) mostly locked in, it seemed like Miami would be taking a cakewalk to the Finals without running into serious adversity. It became even more so with the dramatic injury to Russell Westbrook; without Westbrook, Oklahoma City had to fight for its life afterwards and ultimately went down to a strong Memphis Grizzlies team.

Over in San Antonio, Tony Parker was having the playoffs of his life and a rejuvenated Tim Duncan was making the Spurs a complete force to be reckoned with. For the first time in a long time, the Spurs were a team people were looking up to as a potential, and worthy, Finals opponent. Miami put its head down and reassumed its march, taking on the wounded Chicago Bulls. What they found was a vicious and tough rival that pushed Miami to five games before finally falling. If things had turned out a little bit differently, it might have wound up going seven games.

After vanquishing Chicago, the Heat next took on Indiana. That was when the shocks of adversity finally made itself felt, in the form of the Pacers with an emerging superstar in Paul George and a 7-2 titan in Roy Hibbert. The cracks in Miami’s façade finally appeared, with an inability to get rebounds on both sides of the floor being the prominent one. For seven games, it appeared as if Miami was teetering, verging on total collapse and all the infamy that would come with it. For Miami to escape with a series win and make it to the Finals required everything and more from James and a now-hobbled Dwayne Wade. And it happened. Indiana proved unable to overtake the Heat in the end, and they escaped.

They escaped, only to run into the greatest threat to ever emerge against the proto-dynasty that was the Miami Heat: the wily, experienced and mentally strong San Antonio Spurs, headed by legendary coach Gregg Popovich. For once, the experts and the pundits and the fans were lost for words. No one had foreseen this coming, and everyone had written off San Antonio prior to the playoffs. Yet they kept coming on, and coming on until they were in the Finals. The Spurs were a patient team, steeped in fundamentals and balanced out by a superb mix of age and youth. In short, it turned out to be the best team out of the others to challenge Miami’s claim to a dynasty. Now the predictions started calling for a war to the bitter end – a 7 game series. What it required from LeBron and co. to match that prediction, with a victory, would be nothing less than the greatest escape of LeBron’s career.

And the ensuing series proved it. The Spurs gave Miami no quarter, and the Heat gave San Antonio no quarter, too. It was a battle to the end, with each game leaving both teams progressively exhausted and reaching into their reserves to finish the series out on a winning note. The Spurs put themselves in position to win the series twice, at 2-1 and at 3-2, and were prepared to issue the killing blow that would kill the embryonic dynasty. Suddenly, the whole world wanted in on this experience, savoring the looming kill and preparing to savage James and Miami on social media and in public. It all came down to Game 6. The narrative was all but written out for them, ready to be published and advertised from coast to coast and around the world in an instant right after the final buzzer.

Well, it didn’t happen. LeBron James happened instead. He took over the series by force, and with it Miami’s second straight championship. For a spectacular stretch in the second half of Game 6, the Spurs and the world were held captive by the sheer power and brilliance of LeBron, and it seemed like Miami had clinched the right to survive and advance to Game 7. The Spurs, however, fought back, and took the lead. The yellow tape was being spun around the court, the stage was being brought out, and the champagne was chilling on ice. Just about everyone had left Miami for dead. And that was when James and Ray Allen teamed up to stage the greatest escape of all: coming back from five down with 28 seconds left to tie the game in regulation and win it in overtime. The sudden loss left the Spurs devastated, and the whole world stunned.

And so the best two words in all of sports came into being: Game 7. Everything had already been written out, commented on, and contemplated upon. All that remained was the actual result. The two teams went to war one final time for everything, and left it all out there. Unlike Miami’s previous opponents, the Spurs never went away and stayed in the game right to the end, hanging with Miami at 90-88. And then… swish. That simple sound was the final dagger from LeBron James, a sharp dagger aimed at all the bad words, thoughts, and wishes aimed at him right from the start, and a jagged dagger aimed at ripping up all the narratives about him choking and not being clutch at the end.

Despite the Spurs having one more possession left, everyone knew it was over. James and the Heat would not let this game go. Manu Ginobili made his last, ill-advised turnover, and James ended the game with two more series-clinching points. The Great Escape was complete: Miami was now the world champion. The very long year of LeBron James was now, finally, mercifully over. Both teams picked up a lot of superlatives and compliments in the aftermath, and both teams were gracious to each other. The basketball world united as one to congratulate the champion. And the already-very-long and stellar resume of LeBron James was extended, with one new entry: Escape Artist.

 

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