As the final seconds ticked away, the jubilation kicked in and the confetti began to rain, LeBron James walked to the center of the scorer’s table and wrapped his arms around Kevin Durant, who wore a white towel like a woman wears a scarf.
James pulled Durant, his friend and summer workout partner more than his rival, close and talked into his ear, telling Durant how proud he was of him.
It was a touching scene, and one that, in the aftermath of a Finals that was rife with compelling storylines and — until the final game, riveting basketball — should only whet the appetite of networks and fans.
“Hopefully, I don’t have to continue to run into him because he’s that great,” James said of Durant, whom he will join in two weeks to prepare for the Olympics. “You know, this is not the last time we’ll see Oklahoma City. This won’t be the last time we see them in The Finals.”
Driven by the NBA’s two best players, these were the highest-rated Finals since 2004, the last gasp of the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal era LA Lakers, whose on- and off-court drama and Hollywood cachet made them must-see TV.
In one respect, though, the Heat promise to be something more than those Lakers teams, or even the Bulls, when Michael Jordan pulled the NBA to a new level of prosperity in the 1990s. For all their success and lure, those teams never had a foil as the Celtics and Lakers had in each other during the ’80s.
It is easy to see this title bringing a soft focus — and a more welcoming light — to James and the Heat, perhaps lifting a burden from him and freeing James to chase “not one, not two, not three” titles, as it seemed to do with Jordan.
The road through the Eastern Conference does not figure to be more challenging, with Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose expected to miss most — if not all — of next season recovering from torn knee ligaments, and the Boston Celtics either another year older or significantly retooled, or both.
Though Oklahoma City is clearly on the rise, there are questions about the sustainability of their success. The Thunder, with Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka each no older than 23, were trying to become the youngest team to win an NBA title since the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers. But with the league’s new labor agreement, it will be more difficult for OKC to lock up Harden and Ibaka as they have Durant and Westbrook with long-term deals. Ibaka and Harden can become restricted free agents after next season.
General manager Sam Presti has adroitly assembled and maintained a worthy roster, but the selfless values he has sought in building a San Antonio-like model will be tested when it comes to paydays, even for head coach Scott Brooks, whose contract is up.
And while there is little reason to think the Thunder will not return to the Finals, their path is clearly more prickly than in the East. The Lakers are past their prime but are still kicking themselves for tossing away two games against the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. The San Antonio Spurs have been the best team in basketball over the last two years — until the playoffs start. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban may show this summer during free agency that it was a very good idea indeed to disassemble his championship team of a year ago. And the LA Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets might be a move away from being able to bite anyone.
Then again, maybe all those obstacles will be easier to overcome with the lessons that were learned by Oklahoma City in this series.
As Durant and Westbrook stood with Harden at the end of their bench in the final minutes, awaiting the inevitable end, one by one they embraced and shared a word with each member of the coaching staff and then their teammates while the game played on.
“Making sure everybody stayed positive, just making sure everybody knew that we worked hard and we know what this feeling feels like,” Westbrook said. “We’ll remember this feeling, and that will push everybody in the summer.”
Durant, who collapsed into the arms of his parents as he headed down a tunnel toward the visitors locker room, nodded in agreement.
In recent days, he and his teammates had listened to James and his teammates talk about the lessons learned from losing in the Finals, how they got smarter, sturdier and better.
If Durant hopes history — and this series — repeats itself, he may not be the only one.