Miami Heat players including LeBron James, top center, celebrate after Game 7 of the NBA basketball championship game against the San Antonio Spurs, Friday, June 21, 2013, in Miami. The Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 to win their second straight NBA championship. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
by Brian Mahoney
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — LeBron James will always remember his first championship. History will remember this one.
The way the Heat won — or the way James wouldn’t let them lose — makes them one of the greats.
A Game 6 comeback when it appeared to be over, then a stirring Game 7 victory over a proud opponent cemented a place with the NBA’s giants for this Miami team and its leader.
“Last year when I was sitting up here with my first championship, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done,” James said. “This year, I’ll tell last year he’s absolutely wrong. This was the toughest championship right here between the two.”
And the San Antonio Spurs will always know it’s a title they let slip away.
James scored 37 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a 95-88 victory Thursday night in a tense game that was tight until Miami pulled away in the final minute.
Capping their best season in franchise history — and perhaps the three-superstar system they used to build it — the Heat ran off with the second straight thriller in the NBA’s first championship series to go the distance since 2010.
Two nights after his Game 6 save when the Heat were almost eliminated, James continued his unparalleled run through the basketball world, with two titles and an Olympic gold medal in the last 12 months.
“I work on my game a lot throughout the offseason,” said James, who was MVP for the second straight finals. “I put a lot of work into it and to be able to come out here and (have) the results happen out on the floor is the ultimate. The ultimate. I’m at a loss for words.”
He made five 3-pointers, defended Tony Parker when he had to, and did everything else that could ever be expected from the best player in the game.
The Heat became the NBA’s first repeat champions since the Lakers in 2009-10, and the first team to beat the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
“It took everything we had as a team,” Dwyane Wade said. “Credit to the San Antonio Spurs, they’re an unbelievable team, an unbelievable franchise. This is the hardest series we ever had to play. But we’re a resilient team and we did whatever it took.”
Players and coaches hugged afterward — their respect for each other was obvious from the opening tipoff of Game 1 through the final buzzer.
A whisker away from a fifth title two nights earlier, the Spurs couldn’t find a way to win it all in what was perhaps the last shot for Tim Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili to grab another ring together.
“In my case I still have Game 6 in my head,” Ginobili said. “Today we played an OK game, they just made more shots than us. LeBron got hot. Shane (Battier), too. Those things can happen. But being so close and feeling that you are about to grab that trophy, and seeing it vanish is very hard.”
They were trying to become the first team to win a Game 7 on the road since Washington beat Seattle in 1978, but those old guys ran out of gas just before the finish.
Fans stood, clapped and danced as the clock ticked down, when every score was answered by another score, each stop followed by a better stop. The Heat pushed their lead to six points a few times midway through the fourth but San Antonio kept coming back.
Duncan had 24 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs, but missed a shot and follow attempt right under the basket with about 50 seconds left and the Spurs trailing by two.
James followed with a jumper — the shot the Spurs were daring him to take earlier in the series — to make it 92-88, sending San Antonio to a timeout as Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” blared over the arena’s sound system.
He then came up with a steal and made two free throws for a six-point lead, and after Ginobili missed, James stalked toward the sideline, knowing it was over and that he was, once again, the last one standing.
Wade had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Heat, who overcame a scoreless Chris Bosh by getting six 3-pointers and 18 points from Battier.
“It was a great series and we all felt that,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, but in all honesty, even in defeat, I’m starting to enjoy what our group accomplished already, when you look back. And you need to do that, to put it in perspective. So it’s no fun to lose, but we lost to a better team.
“And you can live with that as long as you’ve given your best, and I think we have.”
Streamers fell from the arena ceiling onto the fans for the second year in a row, but this one meant so much more. A narrow escape in Game 6 was still fresh in everyone’s mind.