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Column: LeBron James wasn't about to let Game 7 get away with another title shot at stake

What, you expected something else?

LeBron James and his teammates weren't going to blow this one, not at home and certainly not with a third straight trip to the NBA Finals on the line. That it went seven games gave the people of Indiana some false hope, but in a star-driven league, the biggest star in the game wasn't about to allow a flop of gigantic proportions on his watch.

David Stern can rest easy now, because the last championship series he will preside over as commissioner won't be the ratings bust that a Spurs-Pacers final would have been. Miami and San Antonio is about as good as the league could have hoped for in a year the Los Angeles Lakers weren't competitive and Oklahoma City went into the tank after Russell Westbrook was injured.

This one was over so early that Justin Bieber didn't have time to take off his shades while sitting courtside. Unlike the day before, the only thing Roy Hibbert had to apologize for was not showing up for the biggest game of his career.

Sure, Indiana had given the Heat trouble all year, handing Miami five of its 20 losses. And, yes, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looked so lost at times during the series that the whole concept of a Big Three in Miami seemed a bit silly.

But did anyone really believe James hadn't learned from his mistakes of years past? Did anyone really think that Wade and Bosh would let James down again when it mattered most?

Surely no one ever thought the greatest 3-point shooter in the history of the league had forgotten how to shoot. Ray Allen did in the first half just what he was supposed to do for his new team, and now he's four wins from the ring he figured was his when he signed on to play alongside James.

"We have guys that are inspired by these types of moments in the bright lights," Miami coach Eric Spoelstra said just before the game, and he was right.

This wasn't a game won by highlight dunks and great shooting, though both were in abundance for the Heat. This was won by superstars getting down and gritty because that was the best way to beat a team that liked nothing better than to mix it up inside.

The oddsmakers in Vegas thought this might happen, making the Heat 7-point favorites despite scoring only five more points in the first six games than the Pacers. Even they had to be impressed, though, by the way Wade came out shooting and the Heat came out defending.

There were some smiles afterward, but it was pretty much business as usual for Miami. Taken to the limit by the physical Pacers, they simply found another gear to win in a 99-76 blowout that was decided before the third quarter was over.

"Everything that happened in the first six games didn't mean anything to us," Wade said. "It was all about Game 7 and finding a way to win at home."

Home is where the Heat will remain for the first two games of the finals, thanks to a regular-season winning streak of 27 games that helped them to the best record in the league. They begin defense of their title Thursday against an aging but well-rested Spurs team that figures to give them different kinds of problems than Indiana did.

For James it will be a chance to win title No. 2 to go with his four MVP crowns. He doesn't need validation anymore after winning last year, but when it finally comes time to judge his place among the league's all-time greats, the number of rings he ends up collecting will figure in the equation.

It's been three full seasons now since he announced his departure from Cleveland in the much-derided "The Decision" television special. Much has changed since then, and James credits Miami's loss to Dallas in the finals two years ago with making him both a better basketball player and a better person.

If he was a half-hearted leader before, he's fully in charge now. On Monday morning he delivered an inspirational address to his teammates, urging them to lay everything on the line to make sure the season didn't end early. He and Wade also met to plan strategy for the deciding game, and James told Wade he would take defensive responsibility for Indiana's Paul George, who averaged 21.5 points in the first six games.

It turned out to be a pivotal decision, with George getting just 7 points on 2 of 9 shooting before fouling out.

"Ever since I lost in the finals to Dallas my mind frame changed that offseason," James said. "I just wanted to get back playing the game I love and have fun and play at a high level."

He's doing that and more, and his ability to take over a game makes him even more dangerous in a short series. The Spurs have their Big Three just like the Heat, but Miami will be favored to win a second straight championship because there is only one LeBron James.

It's a far cry from six years ago, when James was on a Cleveland team that was swept in four straight by the Spurs for the title.

"I'm a much better player now," James said. "I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in those finals."

An exaggeration, perhaps, but maybe it's time to start giving James a break.

Because on this night he looked that good — and even better.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg