It took more than 47 minutes of basketball on Monday night to get the mano-a-mano duel that everyone at Staples Center so desperately wanted - and when the moment came, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James didn't disappoint.
It began with the Los Angeles Lakers up 106-105 on the Miami Heat in the game's final minute. Wade tracked James down the court as the latter took control of L.A.'s offense, and then crouched into a defensive stance, aggressively challenging his old friend to make a play just inside the half-court line. LeBron tried, but ultimately bricked a tough fadeaway.
Thirty seconds later, after a Heat miss, James found himself at the free-throw line. Wade lobbed some playful trash talk his way, and James, who walked to the line 2-for-6 on the night, accepted the challenge by knocking down both freebies to put the Lakers up three.
Finally, the game concluded with James locking up Wade at the other end, forcing a wild turnaround 3-point attempt from the top of the arc that found nothing but backboard. James grabbed the game-sealing defensive rebound and launched it out of view as Wade wrapped him up in a spirited bear hug.
It may not have been the perfect ending to the 16-year link between two of this generation's most iconic players - Wade plans to retire after this season - but it was certainly a fitting one. For all they went through, both together and apart, no player brought out the best in LeBron quite like Wade did.
In a golden age of superstar talent, James has no equal, but it was Wade who emerged as the second-most accomplished player from their legendary 2003 draft class. And while LeBron's current run of eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances is remarkable, Wade reached the pinnacle first, leading the Heat back from an 0-2 hole against the Dallas Mavericks in 2006, winning a title and Finals MVP award before James had even played in a conference championship.
That made Wade the most attractive running mate for a king still seeking his first crown, especially after "Flash" produced otherworldly averages of 28.4 points, seven assists, 4.9 rebounds, two steals, and 1.2 blocks on a true shooting percentage of 56.8 across the 2008-09 and '09-10 campaigns.
It was Wade who, after a demoralizing 2011 Finals loss in their first season together with Miami, encouraged James to take control of the franchise he'd previously propped up for years. And it was Wade's competitive presence that pushed James to take the next step and become the most devastatingly efficient version of himself - and an NBA champion.
After two titles in Miami, James returned home to deliver Cleveland one of the most satisfying titles in sports history. That was followed by a disappointing, short-lived reunion with Wade last season, but their memorable on-court synergy, both as teammates and competitors - and an almost unparalleled off-court brotherhood - had already been cemented.
And despite LeBron's continued excellence in L.A. while Wade plays out his final season as a reserve for a mediocre Heat team, the latter's impact on Monday's emotional ending was palpable. Even Lakers play-by-play man Bill McDonald got caught up in the moment as James dribbled up the court, exclaiming, "Wade on LeBron and the crowd on its feet!"
Perhaps it was competitive pride from two future Hall of Famers who were both trying to break their 15-15 tie in career head-to-head matchups - the same pride that lifted them to back-to-back NBA titles as teammates. Perhaps it was merely a couple of close friends trying to savor every last drop of their final showdown. Whatever the case, Wade, as always, extracted a little something extra from James in that final minute.
"This is what you play for, playing against one of the greatest players ever," Wade said during their joint walk-off interview. "Whether we was teammates, or whether we was opponents, we brought the best out of each other."
Of course, James brings out the best in just about everyone he shares the court with. But how many players can say they consistently brought the best out of him?
"We're gonna miss Flash, man," LeBron said after the game. And it would be no surprise if the King winds up missing him the most.