Updated: March 28, 2014, 1:52 PM ET

1. LeBron Leaves No Doubt With First Crown

By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Soaked in champagne down to his squishing socks, LeBron James slumped onto a chair and grabbed his head. About a half-hour earlier, someone had put a hat on it, and for the first time, he took off the hat and looked at what it said.

"I'm an NBA champion," James said, the shock fast turning into acceptance.

James had been a spectator for many of these moments, watching champions be crowned for years and then again in reruns. Twice in the past five years he had to see it happen in person, quietly slinking to his locker room as they passed out the hats and shirts, as David Stern marched past him with the gold trophy. It's been a journey indeed for James to be able to say those words.

LeBron James
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Late into Thursday night, James gathered around with friends and family members who have been with him since he was a teenager: his agents, executives from Nike who took a $100 million gamble on him, his mother and his fiancée and his two sons. There were two emotions in the room. Naturally, there was joy, and there was relief, almost overwhelming relief.

Whatever your position on James, and there will continue to be many, there are two things that became fact when the Miami Heat finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106 in Game 5. Nine years into his career, at age 27, James has a title. And he earned it.

The past two months haven't been a coronation for the new Finals MVP as much as they've been an acquittal. That's what everything has been about for James since he decided to sign in Miami and then chased that with an end to last season that legitimately shamed him. Not all of it can be washed away with beer and champagne, but James was willing to try.

His 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in the closeout game represented, by any measure, the cherry on one of the greatest individual playoff runs in history. He averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds during the playoffs; moved to power forward when Chris Bosh missed nine playoff games with an injury; led rallies from deficits in three consecutive series; delivered one of the most dominating games of this generation with 45 points in a road elimination game in Boston; got his first Game 7 victory; set a record for number of playoff games with at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists; and became the fifth player ever to have multiple Finals triple-doubles. You could go on and on. The summation is that James is a worthy champion.

"Just the playoff run that he's had, I'm really proud to call myself a teammate of his," Bosh said. "It's just been unbelievable to witness."

The difference between the Heat team that came together in the summer of 2010 and the one that stood at the podium Thursday night was vast. The players and personalities were mostly the same, but this team had long since given up on believing getting here would be easy. Fans continue to horsewhip the Heat for the television specials and the parties, and probably always will. But that mistaken spirit perished a year ago on the same court when they were embarrassed not only by the Mavericks but by their own hubris.

"Obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was," Wade said. "As much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and suffering."

There was absolutely nothing flashy about this Heat run through the playoffs. For all their "Hollywood as hell" reputation, this was a patchwork and workmanlike streak that was covered in potholes.

They did the whole thing without a center, rotating in sometimes downright bizarre lineups. Shane Battier, all 215 pounds of him, guarded Thunder center Kendrick Perkins in the Finals and played power forward the rest of the time. He scored 17 points in both Game 1 and Game 2 of the Finals after averaging less than five points per game in the regular season. He made 15 3-pointers in the five Finals games.

Bosh, who finished off the Finals with 24 points and seven rebounds in Game 5, went through the birth of his son, the death of his masseuse and an abdominal injury that required nonstop treatment for three weeks so he could return in time to help the Heat win the conference finals.

Wade had his knee drained a day before Game 3 of the series with the Indiana Pacers and played the next day, pushing the recovery time. It contributed to him playing the worst playoff game of his career but set the stage for a memorable three-game response that carried the Heat to the next round.

Mike Miller played through bulging discs in his back and a bad foot, somehow playing in all 23 of the team's playoff games. He came up with one of the most improbable games in Finals history Thursday, setting a record for a bench player by hitting seven 3-pointers.

And then there was, of course, James. The butt of mockery for a year after his failures under pressure last year, he came up with several of the biggest and most clutch shots of his career during these Finals. First a jumper and two free throws in the vital Game 2 in Oklahoma City that completely changed the tenor of the series. Then a 3-pointer on cramped legs that gave the Heat the lead for good at the end of Game 4, a loss that proved to break the Thunder's spirit. The vote for the Finals MVP was unanimous.

He never danced, he never choked, he never showed disrespect, he never deferred, he never looked scared of the moment. After so many disappointing ends, summers of discontent, falls of hope, winters of expectation and springs of missed opportunities, James did it. And he did it with honor.

"I did it the right way; I didn't short-cut anything," James said. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done."


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