A fine line often separates the winners and losers. LeBron James walked a tightrope, tripped and still somehow ended up putting the Miami Heat on the right side of the line.
What will be remembered as one of the greatest games of James’ career is a game that never should have happened.
The San Antonio Spurs should have closed out the NBA Finals in six games. But that will be forgotten in time, and history will show James was transcendent in a Game 7 that secured his second title.
The Heat, who closed as 5-point favorites at most Las Vegas sports books, held off the Spurs 95-88 on Thursday night, putting underdog bettors on the wrong side of the line. It was cruel and unusual punishment, for the game and for the series, for those who backed San Antonio.
“In Game 7, you would think the money would come in on the favorite for obvious reasons,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of public relations for William Hill sports books. “You’re getting a lot of recreational guys and sharp guys on the same side.”
The line opened 6½, but the Spurs were the popular side in the season finale, and they showed why for more than 47 minutes. It was 90-88 when Tim Duncan spun into the lane and missed a tying hook from close range — a shot he probably makes nine of 10 times — with 48 seconds left.
Twenty seconds later, James drained an 18-foot jumper. After a costly turnover by San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili, James was fouled and made two free throws. Ginobili fired from 25 feet and missed.
With 16 seconds to go, Dwyane Wade made the first free throw and missed the second, but Miami batted out an offensive rebound before running out the clock, denying the Spurs a last shot and a potential point-spread cover.
Down by five points with less than 30 seconds remaining Tuesday in Game 6, the Heat’s repeat was a long shot. But Ray Allen hit a corner 3-pointer, Miami won a stunner in overtime, and history was being rewritten.
“That game was so electrifying,” Vaccaro said. “With 28 seconds to go, I would have made the Spurs a 5-1 favorite to win that game. That’s how crazy it is.”
There were 17 previous Game 7s in the Finals, and the home team had won 14 times. The Spurs were in a precarious position, one no road team had prevailed in since 1978.
It would seem difficult for San Antonio to emotionally recover from a crushing Game 6. But that was not the problem for Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and coach Gregg Popovich. The underdog brought the fight and hung in there all night.
“A young team would have been absolutely devastated,” Vaccaro said. “The Spurs are a little different, they are a team that could probably handle it because you have the stone-faced coach and guys like Duncan and Parker.”
That’s why the money showed on San Antonio, and the bettors had it right until it all went wrong in the final minute. It was sort of like Game 6 all over again.
For Spurs supporters, it was that sad country song in which a guy loses his dog, girlfriend and truck all in a span of 48 hours. And then he drinks a bottle of whiskey and gets a bad case of heartburn.
Do you believe in miracles? Miami got one, thanks to James, Wade and some timely 3s from Allen and Shane Battier. James finished with 37 points — topping his proposition total of 29½ — and 12 rebounds. He hit 5 of 10 3-pointers and all eight free throws. Wade had 23 points, five more than his prop total.
Popovich used the correct strategy, daring James and Wade to beat the Spurs with jump shots, but it backfired. Battier burying six 3s was not part of Popovich’s plan. Mario Chalmers banking in a 3 to beat the third-quarter buzzer was not in the script.
As consolation, the so-called sharp bettors did end up on the right side of the total. A stagnant first quarter and a slow-paced fourth held to score under 189.
The Heat had the best player on the planet and a lot of luck in their back pocket. It was a Finals that lived up to hype, the last big event before football season providing bettors and books with more than a few thrills.
“Pleasantly surprised,” Vaccaro said of the wagering handle for the Finals. “The decisions are like a good Sunday night football game, like an Eagles-Cowboys game. I’m glad it got to a Game 7. We needed a boost because we’ll be sitting around on our ass for the next five weeks.”
Don’t forget that there never should have been a Game 7. But when James got there, he made it memorable.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.