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NBA WRAP-UP: Champion Heat took tougher road to title; Cleveland finally getting over hate for LeBron

After nine seasons, LeBron James finally got his NBA Championship.  Just two years after “taking his talents to South Beach,” James and the Miami Heat finished off the Thunder in five games late Thursday night.

After nine seasons, LeBron James finally got his NBA Championship. Just two years after “taking his talents to South Beach,” James and the Miami Heat finished off the Thunder in five games late Thursday night.

Cavs fans sigh in acceptance of LeBron's championship

CLEVELAND — On the same sidewalk where fans torched a LeBron James jersey in protest two summers ago, office workers on their lunch hours passed gamblers headed to the new downtown casino.

Just another summer day.

While James was in Miami celebrating his first NBA title, fans in the city he scorned to chase a championship had a much more subdued, internal reaction. There were no angry protests, no public outrage, no threats of harm. Those days have long past.

The king got his ring.

And Cleveland, where sports despair’s roots have grown for generations, seemed to sigh in acceptance.

“In a way I’m kind of happy for him,” bartender Natalie Hardik said between serving pints of beer at Flannery’s, an Irish bar and restaurant across the street from Quicken Loans Arena, where James once starred. “But I definitely still feel a lot of bitterness toward him — everyone does.”

This city, yearning to celebrate its first pro sport championship since 1964, hasn’t forgiven James for leaving as a free agent in 2010. Many can’t let it go. There’s lingering pain and resentment, but there’s also a sense that it’s time to move on.

Some Clevelanders already had.

“I hope they have moved on, and I kind of felt many fans had come to accept this would happen during the season,” said TV sports anchor Jim Donovan, a longtime Cleveland resident. “Fans felt him winning it all was inevitable, and I think some of them may have given up because it’s exhausting to root against the guy. It’s better to root for your team.”

Cleveland reveled in seeing James fail in last year’s finals.

This time, there was no stopping him.

And the sight of James, who grew up in nearby Akron and spent seven seasons with the Cavaliers, hugging and and hoisting a championship trophy was tough to stomach.

“I had mixed feelings,” said Mike Kubinski, who watched Thursday’s Game 5 at home in Cleveland’s Tremont district. “It’s a lot like when your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend gets married. It’s not fun.”

As he spoke, Kubinski stood just a few away from an outdoor clothing kiosk at Westlake’s Crocker Park, where “Lyin’ King” T-shirts were sold after James’ departure in 2010. Now, there’s hardly a trace of James anywhere to be found in Cleveland, where his No. 23 jersey was once omnipresent and his likeness loomed above the city on a giant downtown billboard.

“LeWho?” said Jimmy Pearl of Cleveland. “He left. Outta sight, outta mind, my man.”

Coincidentally, at about the exact time James and the Miami Heat were dispatching the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night, a storm rumbled in across Lake Erie, its thunder and lightning providing the perfect backdrop for another dark moment in Cleveland sports history.

During the game, softball players at the Ironwood Cafe in Westlake glared at flat screen TVs showing the Heat leading by 25 points in the third quarter. It was over, there would be no Game 6 and James’ coronation as a champion couldn’t be delayed any longer.

At the Dive Bar downtown on West 6th Street, Hardik muted ABC’s telecast and played music so fans didn’t have to endure the sounds of James winning a title — the sight was bad enough.

This didn’t hurt nearly as bad as Cleveland’s other well-known sports calamities like “The Drive,” ”The Fumble,” Indians closer Jose Mesa blowing the save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series or former Browns owner Art Modell packing up his beloved football franchise and moving to Baltimore.

But it was still a punch in Cleveland’s collective gut.

And as James danced on the sideline in the closing minutes and later smiled as confetti engulfed him and his teammates, Kubinski felt as if he was watching a well-rehearsed play.

“He’s always acting,” Kubinski said of James. “He always knows where the cameras are and when they’re on him.”

Not long after James’ victory, Twitter and other social media sites overflowed with negative comments directed at the three-time MVP. But Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who accused James of quitting on the Cavs and promised his team would win a title before the “so-called King” didn’t pile on.

“Great NBA season,” Gilbert posted on @cavsdan. “Enjoyed playoffs. Congratulations to Miami & OKC for an exciting Finals. Back to work on next week’s promising Cavs draft.”

Instead of dwelling on James, many Cleveland fans are focusing on what appears to be a bright future for the Cavs. The team has the No. 4 overall pick in next week’s draft, four selections in the top 34 and hope to add some quality players to put around guard Kyrie Irving, the reigning rookie of the year.

At last, it’s time to look forward, not back.

“I think people have moved on and are at peace with it,” said Chuck Kyle, coach of high school football powerhouse Saint Ignatius. “It’s been two years since LeBron left. It hurt for a while, but now it’s time to forget it.”

While there are those who will never forgive him, James has a sprinkling of supporters in Cleveland.

“My dad loves him,” Darrin Cappy said of his 82-year-old father, Bruno. “He’d love LeBron no matter where he played. He loves to talk about LeBron, and I know that’s all I’m going to hear about all weekend.”

MIAMI — A year ago, with an easier path, the Miami Heat fell short of their championship goal.

This time, things seemed much tougher to the Heat — which made the reward only that much sweeter.

The Heat are the NBA champions, after taking an unlikely, uneasy road to the top of the pro basketball world. They were down against Indiana in the second round, down and facing elimination against Boston in the Eastern Conference title series, down yet again against Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals. And strange as this would seem, when the Heat looked most vulnerable, it turned out they were at their best.

Down 2-1 to Indiana, the Heat won three straight. Down 3-2 to Boston, they won two straight. Down 1-0 to the Thunder, they swept the last four games.

“You come together,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can either go the other way or come closer together, and you start to build some toughness. Last year’s pain that we went through, even for the new guys, they inherited that pain. We told them that. And you go through those experiences together, and you’re able to survive it, it’s a great teacher and motivator, and I think that helped us in all the tough times this year.”

Miami was rolling to the title a year ago, going 12-3 in the East playoffs and playing the role of favorite heading into the finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat won Game 1, were cruising to a win late in Game 2, and then the wheels came off — not only did Miami drop that second game, that started a stretch of four losses in five games to cost them the championship.

After that, this year was championship or bust.

They didn’t bust.

“Last year it wasn’t as hard and we lost the championship,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “But we knew it was going to be hard to become champions.”

There came a point this season when the Heat just knew they were built to last. Wade was dogged by injuries at times in the regular season, and the team never had more than even a three-game slide. In the playoffs, Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 against Indiana. The Heat lost Games 2 and 3 without him and trailed in Game 4 before rallying to pull out that series. And against Boston, Miami was in serious trouble, facing a win-or-else Game 6 on the road.

LeBron James had 45 points and 15 rebounds that night. The Heat won the game, won the next one to close out the Celtics and then took four of five against the Thunder. James got his long-awaited ring with a Finals MVP performance, Wade and Udonis Haslem got their second championships, and every other player on the Heat roster got to enjoy celebrating with the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.

“The Celtics series, man, that was the most challenging series that I’ve ever played in — and I’ve played against the Detroit Pistons,” Wade said. “It was the very thing we dealt with last year. We had to deal with being again under the microscope against the Boston Celtics, and they got us ready. Our backs were against the wall many times. But I knew, when we went into Boston and won Game 6, at that point right there I knew we could be world champions.”

He was right.

James, Wade, Bosh and Mario Chalmers exited together with 3:01 left to play Thursday night, Miami by that point well on the way to a title-clinching 121-106 victory over the Thunder. It was much different from Wade’s first title, the one in Dallas where he watched Jason Terry’s 3-pointer to tie the game bounce off the rim and into his hands as the clock ran out.

Wade and James had a chat before Game 5, just silly talk about how they would envision the perfect finish. Wade said he wanted to be on the court for the clincher. James said he would rather be on the bench and celebrating by that point. James’ vision was the way it turned out.

For the first time in a while, at least a few minutes seemed easy.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a basketball player, since I picked up a basketball when I was 9 years old,” James said, referring to Miami’s postseason run. “It’s the hardest thing I ever done. It’s not easy at all. You just put a lot of hard work into it, and hopefully one day you hope that it pays off for you. You know, this was a testament to that. I gave it my all, and it paid off.”

In the end, Wade didn’t mind getting a three-minute head start on the offseason, either.

“We won and we’re world champions,” Wade said. “One thing about this team, we saved our best for last.”