MIAMI — There were seven seconds left in the NBA season and the Dallas Mavericks were already beginning their championship celebration when LeBron James started slowly walking toward Dwyane Wade, his right hand outstretched.
A quick embrace, and with that, the offseason began.
For the Miami Heat, it's time to regroup.
Changing locales did not bring immediate change to the ultimate outcome for James, whose eighth NBA season and first in Miami ended the same way as the previous seven in Cleveland — without a championship. He took a swipe at those who criticized him and the Heat not long afterward, saying the quality of their lives will not improve because he failed to win a title. Truth is, without that ring, he won't reach the stratosphere he's longed for, either.
"There's no distractions that can stop me from trying to chase an NBA championship," James said Sunday night, after the final game.
No, but something always seems to stop him from winning one.
In 2007, his first finals appearance was a sweep against San Antonio, a team that was simply better. This time, the Heat had the home-court edge, were widely perceived as favorites and came into the finals flying high after needing only 11 games to get past Boston and Chicago.
A Game 1 win was followed by a Game 2 collapse, and the series was never really the same again as Dallas won four of the final five contests.
"It was a memorable season, in terms of a group of guys coming together for a common goal to sacrifice a lot of things that they're comfortable with," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It was a hard-working, lunch-pail-type-mentality group that came to work every day to try to chase down this dream. There's an emptiness when you don't reach your goal. There's nothing we can say right now that will make that pain go away. Maybe it's as simple as it being a rite of passage before we have to move on and take the next step."
So where to begin, then?
James said Sunday night that he'll spend the summer getting better. Wade expressed the same sentiments. Changes will be made to the roster at some point, with the Heat looking to upgrade at point guard, center, the bench or all of the above. And whenever next season begins, be it October or delayed by a lockout, James and the Heat will face the same situation they did in the season's final game: Win or bust.
"The more time we get to think about it and think about how close an opportunity we had, it will burn inside of us as competitors," Wade said. "At the end of the day, it will drive us to get back in this position again. So we understand that our goal is to win a championship. We wasn't able to accomplish that year one. But this ain't the end of the Miami Heat. We'll use this as motivation and come back and try to do it again."
On Monday morning, the NBA finals signage was still affixed to the sides of Miami's home arena. People milled about, taking photos of the video board that showed images of Wade, James and Chris Bosh on a loop, along with the Heat playoff logo. Inside the team store, a couple fans picked through piles of what souvenirs remained, one bringing in a newspaper ad — which ran in error — announcing that Heat championship gear would be on sale at a department store.
All seemed normal, except there was no game. No practice. No parade. No party.
And no end in sight to when all that might change for the Heat franchise, either.
"For whatever reason," Heat forward and co-captain Udonis Haslem said, "it just wasn't our time."
James said the same on Twitter as Sunday night turned into Monday morning. From the moment he said he was joining the Heat in that ill-conceived ESPN special last July, everything James says has been dissected in multiple ways. Earlier in these finals, he was asked if he feels like he can't win in the court of public opinion.
"I did win," James said.
Not where it counts most, he didn't. In the finals, he was Miami's third-leading scorer at 17.8 points per game, behind Wade and Bosh. He scored a total of 18 points in the fourth quarters of the six games. Down the stretch on Sunday, fans pleaded with him to do more, especially in one stretch where he would catch the ball and immediately pass to someone else, instead of attacking on his own.
"I think a lot of it has been unfair," Haslem said. "He is a great player. People have been looking to go at him ever since he came to Miami. Every little thing was magnified and blown up. Regardless of what anybody says, one thing you can't take away from him is he is the best player in the NBA, hands down. Say what you want to say. People that complain know it, they just don't want to say it so they look for things to point out.
"He's the best player in the NBA and all of the people that complain wish that he was on their team."
But when Miami held a party to announce the signing of the Big Three, it invited more scrutiny.
When Bosh stopped on his way to the locker room — doubling over, crying and overcome by emotion after Sunday's loss — it was perceived as weakness.
"There's no hiding," Bosh said. "In the NBA you play a series, best of seven games, usually the better team is going to win. So we've got a lot of work to do. We have to go back to the drawing board. It hurts to come this far and come up short."Comment on this story
That hurt will carry now, for months.
Dallas will have its parade soon, the league will likely begin a lockout when the collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30, and after next week's draft the Heat may not have much in the way of official business to conduct for some time.
James said he'll be back in the gym before long. He knows he needs to develop more, whether that's through better post skills or midrange shooting or whatever. Wade won't wait very long before starting to move his vision toward 2012, either. And Spoelstra sounded Sunday night like he's eager to move past the pain of watching Dallas celebrate on his team's floor.
"Sometimes, as tough as it is to admit, sometimes you get beat by a team that it was their time," Spoelstra said. "And that will be a tough thing for us to swallow, this emptiness that we'll feel now during the offseason. It will be a tough pill for all of us."