MIAMI – They all waited and waited on LeBron James to call for his dislodged headband, retrieving it for the inevitable request that it be given to him. Here was James sent to his back after absorbing an elbow from Manu Ginobili, and a Miami Heat player, Norris Cole, sensed this was the opportunity to send the headband. From Cole to a ballboy, it had been delivered to James – and he refused.
Maybe teammates were so accustomed to James needing his headband, whether it’s for comfort or appearance. Fighting for his life in these NBA Finals, fighting for his basketball stature, this accessory was the last thing he had on his mind. Still, Cole threw the headband to the ballboy who held it in front of James late Tuesday, and LeBron knew it had come from the bench, shook his head, and it was tossed back to the sideline.
“We got a game to win,” James hollered toward the bench.
“The headband was the least of my worries,” James would say later, and he spoke honestly. All around him, the measure to which everyone counted out his team baffled him: The championship trophy descending upon the Finals, a yellow tape surrounding the court and fans swiftly filing out of American Airlines Arena. All this premature celebration for the San Antonio Spurs struck the Heat, and James admitted they were irked seeing it.
The Spurs were brilliant for so long in Game 6 on Tuesday night, with double-digit leads throughout the second half and Tim Duncan carrying them in a vintage performance of 30 points and 17 rebounds of post curls and turnaround jumpers, endless cuts and even a monster dunk. They took a 75-65 lead into the fourth quarter and soon had the Heat appearing defeated, dejected in their walks back to huddles.
Except James put forth a magnificent finish to turn a game the Spurs had been poised to steal into an epic end, and, as Erik Spoelstra marveled, LeBron “gave us that life when we were down.” Down five with 28 seconds left, first came a three-pointer out of James, a crucial free throw missed by Kawhi Leonard, and then a game-tying shot in the left corner from Ray Allen.
When it was over, James had accounted for 28 of the Heat’s 38 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, capping a triple-double of 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. As the yellow tape and title board left before overtime, the Heat closed out a 103-100 win that had the Spurs questioning themselves, questioning how they’ll duplicate such a well-rounded effort on Thursday.
“I have no clue how we’re going to be re-energized,” Ginobili said. “I’m devastated. … We’re going to have to play our best game, even better than [Game 6].”
Yet, Ginobili understood the truth: For now, the Spurs very well might have squandered their best chance to seal this championship. For them, the challenge of restoring mentally and physically is daunting – never mind the fleeting long-range shooting left stranded in San Antonio. Ginobili, for his part, also missed a critical free throw late, and he had one less turnover (eight) than points (nine).
Before James placed his imprint on the game, Mario Chalmers was masterful in hitting floaters out of the pick and roll, four three-pointers punctuating his 20 points. There were moments in the regular season when Chalmers showed regression, but the Heat know: He’s proven himself on this enormous stage over and over. “We all know Mario’s a clutch player, and he’s always been that way,” Spoelstra says.
As close as James is with Wade, Allen has been the teammate constantly pushing him and staying in his ear about how much the Heat need him to stay aggressive. Our aura changes when you’re assertive, carefree of missing shots and decimating people in your path, Allen tells him. James lost that belief at times Thursday, but these aren’t the 2011 Finals.
James can fully grasp the magnitude of these moments now with resilience, and when everyone panics around him, when the momentum swings rattle some, he’s had calmness.
“It was by far the best game I’ve been a part of: Ups and downs, the roller coaster, the emotions – good and bad – throughout the game,” James said. “This is something you would never be able to recreate once you’re done playing the game.”
Cole never was able to get that headband back to James late Tuesday, late in the game after LeBron had it knocked off his head. The ballboy held the white headband out for James to put on, and LeBron sniffed there are more pressing worries than an accessory. He had ferociously lifted Miami to a Game 7 and everywhere, people wanted to anoint this James’ no-headband game. “The headband’s gone forever now,” one Heat staffer joked in the locker room.
Whatever, LeBron James had been too battered, too exhausted to consume himself over a headband. Out of Game 6 early Wednesday, James and Tim Duncan limped. Nine years separate them, and Duncan labored from the podium to the loading dock to the quiet of the team bus, as James was carted off comfortably into the night. Here comes Game 7, with Duncan figuring out how the Spurs slipped away a title and James still with a game, a second championship, to capture.