By Julian Linden
MIAMI (Reuters) - LeBron James, his legacy as one of the game's greats now secure, led the Miami Heat to their second straight National Basketball Association (NBA) title on Thursday with a 95-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
James, the sport's biggest star playing at the peak of his powers, dominated the decisive seventh game of an epic series through a combination of athleticism, pinpoint shooting and sheer force of will.
The critics who slammed him when he left his former team Cleveland to join Miami in search of an elusive championship ring, then questioned his nerve when the Heat lost the 2011 Finals to Dallas, were silenced.
When it really mattered, in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Game Seven decider, he scored a game-high 37 points and pulled in 12 rebounds.
"The vision that I had when I decided to come here is coming true," said James, who was also named Most Valuable Player of the Finals for the second year in a row.
"Through adversity, through everything we've been through, we've been able to persevere and win back-to-back championships. It's an unbelievable feeling."
Miami were the overwhelming favorites to take the title after winning a franchise-record 66 games during the regular season, including 27 in a row, the second longest streak in American professional sports.
But they met their match in San Antonio, an ageing team who had collected four championships since 1999 but whose best days were supposedly behind them.
The Spurs were just seconds away from clinching the championship in Tuesday's sixth game before Miami staged an extraordinary comeback to win in overtime and force a winner-takes-all decider.
"It's no fun to lose, but we lost to a better team," San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich said. "And you can live with that as long as you've given your best.
"It was a great series, and we felt that. I don't know if 'enjoy' is the right word, but in all honesty, even in defeat, I'm starting to enjoy what our group accomplished already."
NBA Commissioner David Stern described the wildly fluctuating series as a "championship for the ages" which had "captivated a global audience" with its escalating drama.
Courtside tickets for Thursday's game were selling on the secondary market for up to $30,000 and the game lived up to all the hype with both teams fiercely contesting every possession.
FRENZY OF EXCITEMENT
The Spurs made a great start, opening up a seven-point cushion in the first quarter before Miami reeled them in then got their noses in front.
James shot 12-of-23 from the floor and drained five-three pointers while Dwyane Wade, who won a third title with Miami, had 23 points while Shane Battier, who was benched earlier in the series, played one of the games of his life, sinking six three-pointers from behind the arc.
"I believe in basketball gods. I felt they owed me big time," said Battier.
Tim Duncan had 24 points and 12 rebounds for San Antonio while Kawhi Leonard had 19 points but the Spurs were inconsolable after their loss.
They had led Game Six by five points with 28 seconds left, only to see the title ripped from their grasp when Miami won in overtime then carried the momentum in Thursday's game with the advantage of home court.
"The obvious word is 'disappointing.' It was a tough end to the game. I made some bad decisions, missed some shots," said Duncan.
"I don't know what to say. Just give credit to the Miami Heat. LeBron was unbelievable. Dwyane was great. I just think they found a way to get it done."
Despite trailing for most of the game, the Spurs were still within two points with less than 30 seconds to go but Duncan missed a routine layup then James nailed a jump shot and added two free throws.
James averaged 25.3 points during the Finals and joined Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players to win the regular season and Finals MVP awards two years running.
Russell presented him with his trophy as confetti rained down from the ceiling of the South Florida stadium and fireworks exploded outside over the Miami skyline.
"This is the ultimate," James said.
"I can't worry about what everybody says about me. I'm LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city.
"I'm not even supposed to be here. That's enough. Every night I walk into the locker room, I see a No. 6 'James' on the back, I'm blessed."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)