Lighting The Fire How a headband and a yellow rope changed the course of the 2013 NBA Finals.

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You hate to think that in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, with your team trailing in the series 3-2 and fighting for its season, that some players still need something extra to get them going. You’d like to think that having a championship at stake, a championship that could greatly affect your legacy, would have players digging down as deep as possible in an attempt to pull out a victory for himself, his teammates, his fans, his city. You’d like to think that silly things like a headband or a yellow rope wouldn’t play a factor in an elimination game in the NBA Finals.

But perhaps some players are just wired differently. Perhaps some players need something more than a championship to play for. Perhaps some players don’t have total trust in themselves, and need to be reminded of their powers every once in a while. Perhaps for some a headband or a yellow rope can change your mindset. Perhaps that qualities refer to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

James is the most obvious culprit of the bunch, if only because we have seen him be curiously tentative in several big moments, as he was to start Game 6. But things seemed to change for James in the fourth quarter. After starting off the period well, cutting San Antonio’s 10-point lead to four in the blink of an eye, James found another gear within himself to help lead Miami on an unbelievable fourth quarter run.

As James went up for a putback slam on an errant Mario Chalmers jumper with nine minutes left in the game, his headband got pulled off on his way down, falling to the court as LeBron sprinted back on defense. I don’t want to overreact to a player having his headband knocked off, but please allow me to overreact to a player having his headband knocked off.

James rid himself of a lot of self-doubt when he won the 2012 title, but it still seems like he has times when he prefers not to miss the big shot, instead creating looks for others; those looks for his teammates are usually great ones, but occasionally James makes a mistake by passing rather than attacking himself. At the end of the third quarter, James was 3-of-12 from the field and was once again putting on an oddly passive performance in what can easily be deemed one of the biggest games of his career. He was still playing solid defense, rebounding and passing, but the Heat needed him to get going as scorer to open up chances for himself at the rim and at the line as well as high efficient spot-up looks for his teammates.

Losing that headband in the heat of the battle and then deciding that the game was too important to look for another one to put on gave us LeBron at his most genuine. James has received just as much flak for his receding hairline as he has for his play over the past few years, and he’s clearly sensitive about it. So for him to be on the floor on the biggest stage of his life, without that trusty headband, was big, so much that pundits from all over began to wonder if this was going to be “The Headband Game.” As stupid as it sounds, perhaps the headband was the last trace left of LeBron’s insecurity, and playing without it finally allowed him to just be himself.

“I’ve never seen him play without his headband that long,” Wade said. “He got very aggressive. He really got to the paint and and he was going to give everything that he had, and he did. He had an unbelievable fourth quarter for us.”

No matter how outlandish that theory sounds, there’s no denying that James was a changed man post-headband. With a naked foreheard and his home fans imploring him to strike during every timeout, literally screaming at him to be more aggressive, James transformed into the dominant MVP he was during the regular season.

LeBron was demanding the ball on post-ups, making aggressive moves towards the basket, comfortably stepping into his shots. Then there was an end-to-end sequence that will be remembered forever if the Heat win Game 7. With a little under seven minutes left in the fourth, James came over from the weakside to reject what would have been a wide open Tim Duncan layup, raced the ball up the floor, curled around a screen and met Duncan in the paint. After having lost this tussle with Duncan several times before in this series, James gave Duncan a headfake, thrusting the ball in the air as if he was going up, getting Duncan to move just an inch away from the rim, allowing James to sneak under him for the bankshot.

The Heat took the lead on their next possession, and it seemed as if Miami had made a miraculous comeback to force a Game 7. All of that changed in an instant, though, because with this series, you can’t expect any narrative or trend to last more than five minutes.

With 1:39 left the Heat were in control, mostly because of James’ resurgent performance but also because the Heat defense was stifling the Spurs, refusing to give them any good looks off from three-point land. At worst, Miami would still have a one-point lead the next time they touched the ball. So what happened? After Miami defended him perfectly for 20 seconds, Tony Parker decided to launch a stepback three in the face of LeBron, and it went down, tying the game. On Miami’s next possession, Parker snuck into the paint and stole a pass from Chalmers; Parker then dribbled up the floor, came off a pick, stopped on a dime in the paint, spun around and launched a floater to give the Spurs a lead with less than a minute left. All of a sudden, the Spurs were about to be crowned NBA champions.

No more than 20 seconds later, this much was clear to everybody. After two LeBron turnovers and a few Spurs free throws, San Antonio was up five with half a minute left. Heat fans were leaving the arena, those remaining had looks of disbelief on their face and about two dozen security staff members surrounded the court, waiting to prop up the yellow rope for San Antonio’s trophy presentation.

But just as the Spurs started to taste that celebratory champagne, the Heat big three all caught wind of that feeble yellow rope. Apparently, it was that sight that made the Heat collectively realize that San Antonio would be partying on their home floor if they didn’t pull something crazy out of their hats in the 11th hour. And that’s what they did.

“I saw the rope,” Spurs guard Gary Neal said. “Everybody saw the rope.”

“I got pissed,” Chris Bosh said.

“When they brought out that yellow rope,” Wade said. “And you know you’re not the one that’s going to celebrate, we kept fighting and believing. We played to the last second.”

“We seen the championship board already out there, the yellow tape,” James said. “That’s why you play the game to the final buzzer.”

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to some crucial missed free throws from Kawhi Leonard and Ginobili, as well as some mind boggling substitutions by Gregg Popovich (taking Duncan off the floor for two defensive possessions), the Heat completed the comeback. Duncan’s absence was key because both of Miami’s made threes in the last 20 seconds came off of offensive rebounds; the first loose carom leading to a LeBron James triple and the season saving board by Chris Bosh leading to Ray Allen hitting the shot of his career, and perhaps the greatest shot of all-time, to tie the game with five seconds left.

Second life was given to the Heat when Allen drained that 3-pointer, and their defense went on to dominate the overtime period. James locked up Parker, Wade had a couple of key defensive rotations on the backline and Bosh was absolutely tremendous, providing help in all of the right places, often times defending two or three actions directly on one play while still having to guard against some indirect actions. It wasn’t as glamorous or as sustained as their Game 4 performance, but the defense they played in overtime was one of the big three’s best collective efforts. As Duncan, Parker and Ginobili seemed to wear down, the Heat found a reserve tank deep inside themselves and gutted out and extremely tense five minutes of basketball to force a game seven.

And how fitting was it, given what he said before the game and how many key (yet unnoticed) plays he made down the stretch, for Bosh to finish the game the way he did?

Down three with 1.9 seconds left, the Spurs drew up a play to get Danny Green a look on a flare screen in an attempt to tie the game. Allen was tasked of sticking with Green on the play, but Tiago Splitter set a good screen, freeing up Green as he faded to the corner. But there was Bosh, the man who proclaimed prior to the game that Green would not be open in this game, tracking him every step of the way, standing right in front of him when he caught the ball and cleanly rejecting his shot to end the game.

As the buzzer sounded, Bosh let out a loud roar, tossing the ball across the building as what was left of American Airlines Arena erupted.

There would be no trophy presentation that night.

For the first time during this series, I can say that I am sure of something: Somebody will be handed the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Thursday night.

And I can’t wait to find out who it will be.

(This column was originally written for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It is republished here for my personal archives. If you wish to share this article, please use this link.)

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