Game 7s do more than settle championships. They define legacies.
No matter what happens Thursday night, LeBron James and the Miami Heat, and Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs have already won NBA titles and secured a place in history.
Now is their opportunity to elevate it.
The truly memorable teams won the hard way, and that will be the case for the one celebrating at center court this time. It's either a Heat repeat, possible only after James led it back from what seemed certain elimination in the closing seconds of Game 6, or the Spurs shaking off as gut-wrenching a loss as a team can have to become just the fourth club to win a Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road.
“As a competitor you love it, because you know you have an opportunity and it's up to you,” Heat guard Ray Allen said. “We have a chance in our building to make something great. All of our legacies are tied to this moment, this game. It's something our kids will be able to talk about that they were a part of. Forever will remember these moments, so we want to not live and have any regrets.”
Allen played in the game the last time the NBA's season went down to the very last day, the Boston Celtics fading at the finish and falling 83-79 to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. That made home teams 14-3 in finals Game 7s, with no road team winning since Washington beat Seattle in 1978.
Overcoming those odds, not to mention the NBA's winningest team, would make this more memorable than the Spurs' previous four titles, though this is a franchise that never dwells too much on the past or looks too far into the future.
All that matters is now.
“You know what, it's all about just winning the title. It's not about situation or what has led up to it,” Duncan said. “It's a great story for everybody else, but we're here for one reason, one reason only: It's to try to win this game (Thursday). We have had a very good season thus far, and I think we just want to get to the game more than anything. We just want to see what happens and be able to leave everything out there.”
The teams trudged back to the arena Wednesday, some 12 hours after the Heat pulled out a 103-100 overtime victory in Game 6 to even the series. The Spurs, five points ahead with 28 seconds left in regulation, had to fight off fatigue and heartbreak, insisting neither would linger into Thursday.
By far the best game of this series, Game 6 immediately took its place among the best finishes in finals history, with everything from James' triple-double to Allen's tying three-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation.
It had close calls, debatable decisions, and the NBA's best player at his very best when his team needed him most.
Games 2-5 in the series had been ugly, but that one was a beauty.
“I think – I know – that game will go down as one of the best finals games that's been seen,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “But I think this series will go down as being one of the most competitive, bizarre series that's been seen. So this is what you pay for to watch. You pay to watch two great teams battle to the very, very end, and that's what we'll do (Thursday). It will be to the very last second.”
The Heat could become the NBA's first repeat champions since the Lakers in 2010. James and Chris Bosh moved to Miami to join Wade a few weeks later and they are in the finals for the third time in three chances.
But playing for titles is more expected than celebrated now in Miami, and a 66-win season that included a 27-game winning streak – and perhaps the whole Big Three era – goes down as a failure if the Heat fall Thursday. Yet James said he doesn't need the victory to validate his decision to take his talents to South Beach.
“I mean, I need it because I want it and I only came here – my only goal is to win championships,” he said. “I said it, this is what I came here for. This is what I wanted to be a part of this team for.”
He, Wade and Bosh are going for No. 2, while San Antonio is getting a second shot at what would be a fourth together for Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. All their years together have given the Spurs' trio the belief they can bounce back from Tuesday's collapse.
The team went to dinner after the game, Duncan figuring that was better than guys sitting alone with their thoughts in their rooms. Parker and Boris Diaw discussed a similar situation with the French national team in the 2005 European championships, when they blew a late lead against Greece in the semifinals but then came back to beat Spain for the bronze medal.
“We just have to be positive and forget Game 6,” Parker said. “It was a great opportunity, but that's life. It's basketball and everybody will be ready.”
So will James, who was planning a relaxing night with family and friends Wednesday. He has the most at stake in the game, and when it's over he'll be either a two-time NBA Finals MVP or a two-time loser in a Heat uniform.
“I want to go down as one of the greatest. I want our team to go down as one of the greatest teams. And we have an opportunity to do that,” James said. “Hasn't been many teams to win back-to-back championships. It's so hard. It's the hardest thing. I said last year it was the hardest thing I've ever done, winning my first. Last year don't even come close to what we've gone through in this postseason and in these finals.
“So I'll be there (Thursday) night. I'm going to give it my all.”
The Spurs have never lost in the finals, but they've never faced a situation quite like this. They won a Game 7 for the 2005 championship, but that victory over Detroit was at home. The last five finals that went the distance all went to the home team.
“I don't really care what it's been like for anybody else at any time,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “All I know is we have had a hell of a year and we have an opportunity to win a championship. That's all that matters.”