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Heat survive most pressure-packed season of all time

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LeBron James wandered around the American Airlines Center court in an apparent stupor – receiving congratulatory handshakes hugs and from Spurs players, surviving a bear hug from Juwan Howard and sharing a moment with Gregg Popovich.

If LeBron looked tired, it’s because he was.

LeBron said he couldn’t sleep the night before Game 7 victory, and he couldn’t fall asleep the afternoon of the game as he usually does, either.

“You’re nervous. You’re excited,” LeBron told NBA TV. “You’ve got anxiety.”

MORE: LeBron ‘stuck with it,’ named 2013 Finals MVP

But LeBron and the Heat overcame that burden, merely their latest in an exhausting three years, and now they have another championship.

The Heat’s challenges were deeper than just a sleepless night and a restless afternoon. No team has faced more pressure in NBA history, and the weight on LeBron’s shoulders was even heavier.

Of course, the Heat brought a lot of it on themselves. From “The Decision” to “Not two, not three, not four…,” LeBron drew even more scrutiny to what would have already been a controversial choice to team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

The Heat took their lumps, falling to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. And that was especially difficult to endure, considering the Heat received more media attention than any North American professional team ever has. Media outlets completely reorganized their coverage plans to devote more resources to the Heat beat.

MORE: LeBron, Wade stick together to win another title

Miami survived the gauntlet in year two, winning the title. Though that should have ended issues it didn’t – has any NBA champion, let alone a Finals MVP, received more questions about whether he can win the big one than LeBron did this year? – it brought a new level of difficulty.

“The second one is way harder than the first one,” LeBron told NBA TV. “I heard a lot, after I won my first one, they was like, ‘You know, they’re going to start getting easier and easier and easier.’ Absolutely not true. Absolutely not true. This was the hardest one by far.”

Not only were expectations higher and media attention greater, Miami leaned on a blitzing defensive system that, while effective, was physically exhausting. A 27-game regular-season win streak became mentally exhausting too, requiring the Heat to bring a tighter focus than most contenders summon in the dog days of February and March.

MORE: ‘Game 7 is always going to haunt me,’ Duncan says

The win streak also created unreasonable expectations that the Heat could cruise through the playoffs. In reality, Miami need 23 postseason games to outlast the field, a total topped just eight times before. Any thought this was going to be easy was delusional, but perhaps nobody realized how tough the Heat’s road would get near its end.

They could have succumbed after losing Game 3 of the Finals by 36 points – no team that suffered a 35-point loss in the Finals had ever won the series – but they didn’t.

They could have succumbed when they fell behind 3-2 San Antonio – they hadn’t won back-to-back games in the previous month – but they didn’t.

They could have succumbed when they entered Game 7 – San Antonio had never trailed in a Finals series, and only the 1988 Lakers had won two Game 7s as deep into the playoffs as the Heat, which also beat the Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals – but they didn’t.

After surviving their final challenge, the Heat celebrated their championship, and Doris Burke asked Wade what it took to reach this point.

“Everything,” Wade said. “It took everything we had as team.

“We’re a resilient team, and we did whatever it took.”

A few minutes later, LeBron, awoken from his stupor, stood in the locker room under a mist as steady as rain.

“I can’t see,” LeBron said squinting and grinning until someone got him a towel to wipe his eyes.

Several times this season, the Heat could drowned in the pressure, in the attention, in the physical exhaustion. But they never did, and now they’re swimming in champagne.

After loss, Kevin Durant doesn’t sound like guy looking to bolt Oklahoma City

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after being defeated 96-88 by the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
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The conventional wisdom around the NBA shifted some as the NBA playoffs wore on, moving from “Kevin Durant is definitely in play” to “Kevin Durant likely stays with the Thunder for at least a year” as the Thunder kept on winning and came close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors. Where is he going to go and have a better chance at a ring?

Of course, when asked directly about free agency after the game, Durant would have no part of it.

“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it,” Durant said. “I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I’ll think about that stuff, I don’t know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don’t know.”

But some of the other things he said over the course of the night sounded like a guy who is going to stay put. At least for now. There was this comment reflecting back on the season:

“I’m just proud of what all we’ve been through this season. We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That’s just what makes this game so special.”

Notice the use of the word “we.” He used that word a lot in his postgame press conference.

He used that word more speaking to Sam Amick of the USA Today a little later in the evening.

“We all grew up,” Durant said. “I think more than anything, we embraced the moment. We stayed in the moment every game. I’m more proud because most of these guys haven’t played in this atmosphere before.

“From (fellow free-agent-to-be) Dion (Waiters) to Enes to Andre, Steven – this is his first time as a starter playing, in this type of atmosphere as one of the main guys,” Durant said. “(Veteran) Randy (Foye) never made it to the Western Conference Finals, and he played a lot. Anthony Morrow had never made it to the playoffs, so I was just proud of how everyone just stayed in the moment and enjoyed it. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

And then, the curious kicker.”I see bright things for this team,” he added. “And it’s great to be a part of it.”

Once Durant’s emotions have settled after the loss, he may look at his situation and decide he does want to test the waters of free agency. There are no certainties in the NBA.

However, the sense around the league is that Durant will sign a two-year, one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, where he gets max money next season then can opt out again after one year (the kind of deal LeBron James did last summer). The reason starts with money. Durant’s max salary next season (whether with the Thunder or another team) will start at around $28 million a year, but if he signs a new contract in 2017 — after another salary cap bump and he gets 10 years in the league, so the percentage of his max deal goes up — his max would  start in the $37 million a year range. There’s a risk with a one-year type deal, but it makes a lot of sense because he will make a lot more money and get to make one more run at a ring with Russell Westbrook and the developing cast in Oklahoma City.

We will see what Durant decides, but the smart bet is on him staying in OKC for at least one more season.

In-flight meeting helped spark Warriors rally from down 3-1

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors hoists the Western Conference Championship Trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) A heart-to-heart was in order.

As the Golden State Warriors made the long, frustrating flight home from Oklahoma City last week suddenly facing elimination, Draymond Green gathered with a few fellow starters at a table in the front of the plane to discuss how to get the defending champions back to winning – and fast.

No other choice to avoid a premature end to this record-setting season.

“We just kept talking about what we needed to do and what we were going to do,” Green said.

Somehow, six days later, the Warriors had won Game 7 with a third straight victory against the Thunder after falling behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. And they are headed back to the NBA Finals for a rematch with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the title defense still very much within reach. Game 1 is Thursday night on Golden State’s Oracle Arena home floor.

“We never lost confidence, and every game just played with fearlessness and that confidence that we could get back to the Finals however we had to get it done,” MVP Stephen Curry said after his 36-point performance in Monday night’s 96-88 clincher of the Western Conference finals.

“I knew we were ready for the moment. We were a mature basketball team that tried our best not to listen to the noise outside when six, seven days ago, we’re down 3-1, everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was kind of the end of our run,” Curry said. “But in that locker room, the talk was positive. It was, `Let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time and claw our way back into the series and see what happens.’ We followed that kind of mindset these last three games.”

In the airplane sit-down, Klay Thompson was clear he could only focus as far ahead as winning Game 5 before shifting to think about how to win another one on the Thunder’s court. Golden State’s most steady player this postseason, he hit an NBA-postseason record 11 3-pointers for 41 points in a thrilling 108-101 Game 6 comeback, then another six on Monday night on the way to 21 points.

Even after two embarrassing, lopsided road losses at Oklahoma City that put the Warriors in a big hole, Green counted on them finding a way to come back. He believed it would happen, “Because once we figured something out, we can get it rolling.”

Those two defeats were by 52 combined points.

“We were not just down 3-1, we had gotten blown out two straight games,” coach Steve Kerr said. “So obviously everything started with Game 5, kind of rediscovering ourselves and our style. Then Game 6 was kind of magical. What Klay did that night, basically putting us on his shoulders and allowing us to have this opportunity tonight at home, it’s a pretty remarkable comeback and it shows a lot about our guys and their will and their grit.”

Green is the one who made it clear to Kerr the Warriors wanted to go for the regular-season wins record rather than resting down the stretch, and they topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-wins mark.

This time, the animated, emotional swingman helped Golden State become the 10th team to win a postseason series after falling behind 3-1, and it did it against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the powerful Thunder.

“I think everybody will look at 73 wins and say, `Wow, this team never hit any adversity,’ but there is adversity in every season. It all comes in different forms,” said Green, who had 11 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. “But when you’re talking down 3-1, and everything’s on the line, that makes it 10 times worse. So it’s definitely the biggest thing that this team has had to overcome, and it took a great, tremendous effort and fight to overcome it.”

The Warriors now must figure out a way to pull off four more wins against James and the Cavs, who will be eager to change their fortunes following that 4-2 Finals defeat last June when Golden State captured its first championship in 40 years.

Kerr made the spot-on decision to move Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for Game 7 to defend Durant, just as the Coach of the Year did during the NBA Finals last year when Iguodala earned Finals MVP honors.

“To have our back against the wall and do it three straight games is tough,” Iguodala said. “I’ll probably forget about it tomorrow morning because we really want to get another one. But it was good for us to have to battle like that. Hopefully it carries over and we can continue with that intensity we’ve had the last three games.”

Reserve center Marreese Speights offered his postgame insight on Twitter.

“Y’all never seen a 73 win team .. Y’all never seen a player win unanimous mvp… Hahha this story not over!! (hash)history (hash)believe.”

Watch all 17 three pointers from Warriors Game 7 victory over Thunder

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“They beat us from the three-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

He’s right. For most of seven games the Oklahoma City Thunder owned play inside the arc — their length and athleticism gave the Warriors tremendous trouble. But the Warriors had the three ball as the equalizer — or, it turns out, slightly more than the equalizer. Golden State shot their way to a series win by knocking down threes the last two games. Often contested, well-defended threes.

Above check out the 17 threes the Warriors nailed in Game 7 (on 37 attempts, or 45.9 percent shooting). There’s a lot of Stephen Curry (7) and Klay Thompson (6) in those highlights.

Here’s the NBA Finals schedule, clear your schedule accordingly

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game 7
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The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors. A rematch of the highest-rated NBA Finals since the Jordan era, which you know makes the suits at ABC/ESPN/Disney happy. But it’s also good for fans, these are the best teams from each conference, and it should be an interesting matchup.

The NBA has moved away from the Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday pattern of games the NBA Finals has followed for years. Below is the schedule for this year’s Finals, all times are Eastern, and all the games will be broadcast on ABC.

Game 1 – June 2 (Thursday) at Golden State  9:00PM

Game 2 – June 5 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00PM

Game 3 – June  8 (Wednesday) at Cleveland  9:00 PM

Game 4 –Fri  June 10 (Friday) at Cleveland 9:00PM

Game 5 * — Mon  June 13 (Monday) at Golden State 9:00PM

Game 6 *  — Thu  June 16 (Thursday) at Cleveland 9:00 PM

Game 7 * —  June 19 (Sunday) at Golden State 8:00 PM

* means if necessary