MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade was walking down the hallway toward the Miami Heat locker room in the wee hours of Friday morning, still in uniform and fussing with the new championship hat atop his head as his team and their families were in the midst of partying the night away.
He stopped briefly and assessed the celebration.
"We're getting pretty good at these," Wade said.
That's understandable, the Heat are getting plenty of practice at throwing themselves end-of-season parties. Four trips to the NBA Finals since 2006, three championships in that span and with the last two titles coming consecutively, it's making the decisions that the Heat and LeBron James made three summers ago look pretty smart.
By topping San Antonio in Game 7 of a back-and-forth NBA Finals on Thursday, the Heat became the sixth franchise in league history to win consecutive championships. It's their third title overall; only four clubs have more. And for James, it capped two seasons where he won all he could — two regular-season MVPs, two titles, two Finals MVPs, even an Olympic gold medal.
"It feels great. This team is amazing. And the vision that I had when I decided to come here is all coming true," James said. "Through adversity, through everything we've been through, we've been able to persevere and to win back to back championships. It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm happy to be part of such a first-class organization."
James said winning his first title was the toughest thing he's ever done.
It's now the second-toughest. Defending the crown, he said, was even more arduous. He was exhausted when it was over — and still scored 37 points in the finale, more than he posted in any other postseason game this season.
"Believe in LeBron," Heat President Pat Riley said.
Miami did, all the way to the end.
The Heat rolled past Milwaukee in a first-round sweep, needed five games to oust Chicago in the second round, but then went to the seven-game limit against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals and then to the last game again against the Spurs, who actually were 21 seconds away from ending the series in six games before James and the Heat engineered a huge rally.
Without that comeback, a championship-or-bust season would have gone bust.
Instead, legacies were enhanced, more trophies were hoisted, and Miami's place atop the NBA landscape was cemented.
"To be in the championship three years in a row, to win two of those three, is unbelievable," Wade said. "Everybody can't get to the Finals and win six in a row, like win six and not lose one like Michael Jordan. Everyone don't do that. But we are excited about the future of this organization. We are still a good team. And we're going to do everything we can to make sure that we can stay competitive."
Moves will be made, of course. The Heat have some luxury-tax concerns to address, and it would be a shock if they didn't try to get even better through a trade or free agency.
"All it's about now is what's in front of us," Riley said.
Then again, if James keeps getting better, Miami's place in history will probably only rise.
At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, James has a combination of size, speed and strength that seems unmatched in the NBA world. After Miami lost the 2011 finals to Dallas, James decided to improve his post play by working with Hakeem Olajuwon. Last season, his focus was on enhancing his mid-range jumper, something he continued working on throughout the season with Ray Allen.
So with about a half-minute left and the Heat up by two points, it was that mid-range jumper that sealed Miami's title. James delivered with 27.9 seconds left to make it a two-possession game. Not long afterward, he had the Larry O'Brien Trophy in one arm, the Finals MVP trophy in the other, ready for a well-deserved break from basketball.
"I want to be, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game," James said. "And I will continue to work for that, and continue to put on this uniform and be the best I can be every night."
James has already put himself in that best-ever conversation.
"We all know his work ethic," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who spent part of his first day as a two-time champion coach at Jim Larranaga's basketball camp at the University of Miami. "It's probably unique for a guy who has been the best in the game since he was in seventh grade. Usually you wouldn't have the type of work ethic that would match that type of talent."
Jordan won six titles, James only has two. But if that's the sole standard, then Jordan isn't even close either, considering Bill Russell won 11 rings in his Boston career. Russell was there for the Heat title clincher, served as part of the on-court trophy presentations, then retreated to a small room not far from the Miami locker room as players meandered in for one of the immediate perks of winning a title — a photo shoot with the trophy.
James posed for hundreds of photos during his time in there. Camera clicks were a constant sound for about 10 minutes when he was in the room. And before he left, he and Wade waved for Russell to come join them for some more snapshots.
"Get the legend up here," James shouted.
Russell walked to the front of the room as a few people, mostly Heat employees and family members, clapped. He shook hands with the Heat stars, then turned around to face the cameras and said something to James that was barely audible to those even a few feet away.
"You earned this one," Russell said.
James' grin became even broader, and camera shutters kept on whirring. Suddenly, that oft-mocked, oft-replayed "not two, not three, not four" answer James gave during the Heat celebration of their free agency coup in 2010 doesn't look like such a punch line anymore.
"I always felt that when he got up to five, six, seven that he was joking a little bit, but the media decided to take him very seriously," Heat managing general partner Micky Arison said. "I think right now he's real happy with two and next year he'll be worried about three."
James has played 10 seasons now. Including playoffs, his scoring average is 27.6, third-best in league history behind only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Since the league began charting plus-minus (the point differential when a player is on the court), James' teams have outscored opponents by 3,861 points with him in regular-season and playoff games. Second-best on that list? Wade, at 2,301 points. That gap is simply huge.
With an average season next year, he'll move into the Top 25 in all-time regular-season scoring. He got more rebounds per game this season than ever before, shot the 3-pointer better than ever before, punctuating that by making five in Game 7 of the finals. And here's what might be truly frightening for opponents: For the sixth straight year, James' shooting percentage got better.
"Hopefully people will leave him alone a little more now," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "He takes a lot of heat, I think undeservedly. He's the best player on the planet. And hopefully now with two titles, he'll get more the benefit of the doubt. But, you know, he's the best. He's the best right now."
So are the Heat. And that can't be argued.
The Celtics, Lakers and Bulls are the only franchises to win three straight titles. That will be the challenge for the Heat next year, to take a great run and make it a truly elite run.
For now, though, James wants no part of that conversation. He's going to enjoy this one for a good long while.
"It's the ultimate," James said. "I don't want to think about next year right now, what our possibilities are next year. Got to take full advantage of this one. It's an unbelievable moment for our team."