MIAMI — It all comes down to this.
Heroes are made, legacies are forged and hearts are broken in Game 7s of the NBA Finals. It's a shame they don't come around more often.
David Stern has spent 30 years as NBA commissioner, and he's only been able to see the league's ultimate event five times. The rareness of the one game, winner-take-all scenario is what makes it special. That certainly isn't lost on Stern, who plans to retire in February and is watching his last finals as commissioner.
The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat took this year's series to a Game 7 – the third one in the last nine years, a pattern that basketball enthusiasts hope will continue.
"To have two well-constructed and each, in their own way, fabled teams with playoff MVPs, with finals MVPs, certain Hall of Famers, seven championships among them, having had a great season," Stern said Thursday afternoon, "it's as good as it gets."
Rare are the occasions where the season definitively comes down to its very last day. Senses are heightened. Stomachs are churning.
"You go through a long season and you're not thinking today's the last day," said ESPN analyst Kurt Rambis, who played in two Game 7s with the Lakers in 1984 and `88. "That one, it is a real defining moment. There are a lot of emotions that you go through thinking about the what-ifs of you winning and what-ifs of you losing. You start thinking about everything you went through to get to that point. It's clear that it's over with after today."
It's as close as the NBA can get to the drama and stakes of the Super Bowl, and Stern has witnessed the celebration and the heartbreak up close.
"Each one of them is so terribly exhilarating," Stern said. "In addition to the exhilaration of the winning team, the despair of the loser is palpable. It's sports at its best. It's the essence of competition."
Stern said it would be hard for this series to top Game 6, when LeBron James rallied the Heat from five down with 21 seconds remaining to win it in overtime. It kept Miami's hopes of defending its title alive against Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the veteran core of the Spurs.
"I just think everyone, including the spectators, are on edge and that's wonderful," Stern said. "Every possession gets magnified. Every move, every coaching change, every adjustment, it becomes a clinic about the beauty of our game."
Here's a look at some of the most recent finals Game 7s:
2010: Lakers 83, Celtics 79. Kobe Bryant had tried to pretend the Celtics were just another opponent, but he could finally admit otherwise after the Lakers pulled off a fourth-quarter rally to avenge a loss to their biggest rival two years earlier. It wasn't a pretty performance for Bryant, who shot just 6 of 24 for his 23 points, but he got help from Pau Gasol (19 points, 18 rebounds) and a surprising 20 points from Ron Artest, before he was Metta World Peace. The Lakers needed a big comeback after the Celtics led by 13 in the second half. Boston's old guys ran out of gas, with Paul Pierce shooting just 5 of 15, Ray Allen 3 of 14 and Rasheed Wallace wearing down after being forced to play 36 minutes because starting center Kendrick Perkins injured his knee in Game 6. With their second straight championship and 16th overall, the Lakers pulled within one of the Celtics for the most in NBA history.
2005: Spurs 81, Pistons 74. Tied at 57 going into the final quarter, the final game of the 2005 season was anything but an offensive masterpiece. But the Spurs found more than enough scoring down the stretch to capture their third title in six years, with Duncan finishing with 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Ginobili adding 23 more. Duncan opened the fourth-quarter scoring with a dunk, and the Spurs never trailed in the final 12 minutes. Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen and Ginobili all came up with big 3-pointers for the Spurs in the final quarter, with Ginobili's basically serving as the backbreaker for Detroit, putting the Pistons in a 72-65 hole with 2:57 left. The Pistons never got within four again. Five players scored in double-figures for Detroit, with Richard Hamilton leading the way with a hard-fought 15 points on 6 for 18 shooting.
1994: Rockets 90, Knicks 84. Hakeem Olajuwon scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, leading the Houston Rockets past the New York Knicks and officially ending the Chicago Bulls' reign atop the NBA world. It's not Olajuwon's stats that people remember most about Game 7. That distinction goes to John Starks, the Knicks guard who kept shooting and shooting ... and missing and missing. Starks finished 2 for 18 from the floor, scoring just eight points for New York. And the Knicks still had a great chance, being down just three points with under 3 minutes remaining. But a basket by Olajuwon and a 3-pointer by Vernon Maxwell all but sealed the title for Houston. Maxwell finished with 21 for the Rockets. For the Knicks, Derek Harper scored 23 points and Patrick Ewing finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. As for Starks, his 0 for 11 from 3-point range has only been matched once in the two decades since, by Antoine Walker in 2001.
1988: Lakers 108, Pistons 105. Pat Riley famously said that his Los Angeles Lakers would defend their 1987 title. He was correct, but his club was taken to the absolute limit by Detroit. The Pistons played down the stretch without their floor leader, as Isiah Thomas succumbed to the sprained ankle he was trying to play through. But they gave the Lakers all they wanted, cutting a 15-point deficit all the way to one on Bill Laimbeer's 3-pointer. The Pistons would not score again, the Lakers got a layup to clinch the title and with that Riley's team survived its third Game 7 of that year's playoffs. James Worthy was magnificent, finishing with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists for Los Angeles, which went 4-0 in games where it was facing postseason elimination. Joe Dumars scored 25 for the Pistons, who led the series 3-2 before the 2-3-2 series returned to Los Angeles.
1984: Celtics 111, Lakers 102. Round 1 goes to Larry Legend. In the first finals meeting between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the Celtics and Lakers traded punches in a tense first six games. Back at the Boston Garden for Game 7, Bird put up 20 points and 12 rebounds to get the better of his rival from Los Angeles. The Lakers cut a 14-point deficit to three with just over a minute remaining, but Cedric Maxwell forced a key steal on a pass from Johnson to Worthy and Dennis Johnson hit two free throws to seal the victory. Maxwell led the way with 24 points, eight assists and eight rebounds and Dennis Johnson scored 22 points for the Celtics. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 29 points, Worthy had 21 and Magic Johnson had 16 points and 15 assists for the Lakers. Magic would get his revenge over Bird in two more finals clashes, but he made just 5 of 14 shots in this one.
1978: Bullets 105, SuperSonics 99. One of the most unlikely matchups – Seattle came out of the West as a No. 4 seed and Washington was the third seed in the East – provided one of the more memorable games in finals history. The Bullets led by 11 points before Seattle surged back into the game, cutting the deficit to 101-99 in the final 90 seconds. Sonics big man Paul Silas intentionally fouled Bullets forward Wes Unseld, who was a 63 percent foul shooter for his career. But Unseld made both free throws and Bobby Dandridge dunked home the last of his 19 points to seal Washington's only basketball title. Dennis Johnson was 0 for 14 from the floor, but Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster scored 27 points and Jack Sikma chipped in 21 for the Sonics. Charles Johnson scored 19 points and Unseld added 15 points for Washington, which the last team to win a Game 7 on the road.
AP Basketball Writers Brian Mahoney and Tim Reynolds contributed to this story.