Only seconds remained when LeBron James picked up Dwyane Wade just outside the three-point line.
It wasn’t part of the Lakers game plan, but there wasn’t any other way this final meeting between two of the game’s greatest players could go.
Wade released a three-point shot that would have tied the score, kicking a leg up toward James, but the shot didn’t fall.
After a second-chance attempt by Miami’s Justise Winslow, James caught the rebound as Wade sprinted at him. He threw the ball high into the air before Wade could foul him, and Wade grabbed James around the waist, the two of them grinning like school kids. They laughed together as they stumbled toward the sideline, then Wade released his embrace, they faced each other and hugged again. They shed their jerseys and handed them to each other.
“We did it our way,” James said. “And it was a great unbelievable ride for 16 years.”
They’ve been friends for more than 15 years and this was likely their last chance to do this. Wade has said he will retire after this season.
Led by Kyle Kuzma, who scored 33 points, the Lakers beat the Miami Heat 108-105. James finished with 28 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds while Wade, who is retiring at season’s end, countered with 15 points, all in the second half, 10 assists and five rebounds.
“It’s amazing to me that they’re still playing, both of them, at such a high level,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “You play in the NBA, it goes really quickly. They got the most out of their careers. They’re not done yet. But winning championships, separate and together, becoming two of the best players of all time. … With a blink of an eye we’re talking about them playing for the last time together against each other.”
This wasn’t one of their meetings of old, but it was still a game they might talk about for years to come.
“I knew at some point in the game it was going to hit me that this was the last time we were competing versus each other,” Wade said. “It hit me right away, once that buzzer sounded.”
Wade didn’t start, but he entered the game to a standing ovation in the first quarter. During a timeout, Staples Center played a tribute video for him.
There were also moments when the Lakers made silly mistakes that led to needless turnovers. On one play, after Lance Stephenson turned the ball over and the Heat turned it over on the other end of the court, Ball attempted a behind-the-back bounce pass that bounced too high and sailed over all of his teammates’ heads.
But what mattered more than the score was the historic nature of the day.
On the jersey Wade handed James after the game, he wrote a message inside the white No. 3.
“Thanks for pushing me to be greater than I knew I was,” it said.
The feeling was mutual.
“To accomplish what I really wanted to accomplish in this league, and that’s winning at the highest level, I needed him,” James said. “That’s why I made the jump. I appreciate more than I can express in words what he did for me when I went down to Miami.”
When James arrived in Miami, he was a 25-year-old man who’s spent his entire life living in northeast Ohio. Wade already had a championship and the adulation of a city’s basketball fans.
They won two championships together during James’ four seasons with the Heat. Then James went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers and won a third to match Wade’s total.
As the game closed the two faced each other, likely for the last time. Their teammates watched, some entertained by the poetry of the matchup, some with more practical concerns.
“We just wanted to have a man in front of a man so they didn’t have an easy three, it was a real three,” Kuzma said. “Just so happens the basketball gods would work it out like that.”
The Lakers’ didn’t plan for James to guard Wade on the final shot, but James switched onto him.
“We know each other more than we know ourselves,” James said.
In his turn to defend, Wade didn’t let James go left. In James’ turn , he didn’t let Wade go left, either.
“It ended how it was supposed to end,” James said. “I’m not even talking about the win or the W or anything. Us matched up for the final two possessions. Him guarding me on one end. Me guarding him on the other end. It’s only one building that could’ve even embraced that moment and that’s Staples Center. We all got a treat tonight.”
It was the ending to a chapter in their story, but not the end of their story.
“He’ll be around a lot more, for me personally, which I’ll love that, that’s for sure,” James said. “But he told me, ‘Just keep going,’ and I have to. We’re getting slim. We’re getting slim with our draft class, and so it’s my obligation to keep it going as much as possible.”
After the game, James and Wade met for dinner together. After the season ends, Wade has an open invitation to work out with James at Staples Center or in the Lakers’ facility. James can even envision Wade helping James’ quest to develop the Lakers’ young players.
They’ll be on the same team. In a way they always have been.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli