SAN ANTONIO — Fifty minutes prior to one of the most insurmountable challenges of his NBA career, LeBron James sat stoically in front of his locker, headphones covering his ears, eyes fixated on the floor, fingers clasped on his forehead.
This was the determination he would carry to the court, the determination that drove him to carry his tattered team to a 22-6 lead, the determination that, in the end, couldn't come close to overcoming the overwhelming disadvantages on his side.
And, so eventually, that determination gave way to dejection and despair. First, when the Spurs surged into the lead, and he slammed the ball so it bounced up and careened off his side. Then, much later, when he forced a jumper, slumped his shoulders and slow-walked back;. And finally, when he sat for good with 31 points and 10 rebounds, pressing those same fingers over what appeared to be watering eyes.
By then, his squad had been overwhelmed by one of the all-time NBA Finals floods, outscored 59-22 from 5:04 remaining in the first quarter until 5:01 left in the third. After that period of Spurs perfection—or as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it, "exquisite basketball"—everything that the Heat did was essentially immaterial.
This 104-87 rout was a root canal, administered by a dentist that kept digging into the drawer for different drills, and never, ever the Novocaine.
"They were the much better team," James said, after losing his third NBA Finals in five tries, this one by a 4-1 count.
This is the simplest of statements from a competitor, yet also the hardest for someone of his stature to say. He is blessed with the fundamental belief that he can help others become more than they are, but even he can't heal the sick and repair the broken, and that's what too many of his teammates were at this stage.
All season, the Heat touted their veteran professionalism, their "stay ready" mentality, their championship mettle and their limitless depth. And yet, with the season at stake, Spoelstra was left to break up with his starting point guard—after three full seasons of sticking with Mario Chalmers—while breaking the glass late for the long-banished Michael Beasley, playing the Hail Mary role of 2011 Eddie House. And Spoelstra had no choice but to risk James breaking down, requiring the four-time MVP to cover elite point guard Tony Parker while initiating nearly all of the Heat offense.
Many will accurately argue that age caught up with this team. That is undeniably true, with too many players wheezing toward the end, including Dwyane Wade, whose solid Eastern Conference Finals had fueled such promise for a much stronger finish. Many will correctly assert that Pat Riley needs to replenish the roster with youth, even if that's a day late and, now, a championship short.
But there was other stuff, too.
Stuff that the players saw behind the scenes, stuff that some of the statistics suggested, stuff that started early in the season and stuck around like a dry cough as the months passed. Stuff that always made this feel like something just short of a championship team.
There was an unmistakable absence of focus and fun compared to the past two seasons, due to a combination of factors, from popular players subtracted (especially Mike Miller) to critical performers sidelined (notably Wade) to the mental and physical wear from so many grueling postseason contests.
"It was a difficult year," Shane Battier said after his final NBA game, repeating a sentiment he'd privately expressed several times during the season. "It was a trying year from the standpoint that there were very few pure moments. That was the biggest difference between the past two years.
"And we were always trying to conjure something. And for a while there, in the second half, it worked. But you can't win a championship trying to conjure something. It has to be who you are, and it has to be pure, and that wasn't the case for us this year."
That manifested itself in numerous ways, but mostly on one end: The one end that the Heat couldn't afford to be average, especially against an opponent as efficient as San Antonio.
"Unfortunately, I made the mistake of looking at our defensive rank before the Finals," Battier said. "And I know that no team outside the top 10 had ever won the title. So we'd have to do something pretty historic to beat the best offensive team in the league. And that 12th ranking is not the result of two weeks or a month of basketball. It's the result of an entire season. And we just didn't have the fundamentals to stop an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs. And we were exposed."
The Heat were collectively exposed across the board. And it impacted all of their players, even their premier one, individually. In the Finals, James averaged 28.2 points and 7.8 rebounds, while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor, but somehow the Heat were a minus-13.1 per 100 possessions when he played. After it was over, and while the media were milling around his teammates, he wore shades while speaking quietly with business manager Maverick Carter in the training room.
By the time he addressed reporters in the interview room, he had collected himself considerably. Sitting next to Wade, but getting the majority of the questions, he deflected a series of attempts to ascertain his future while heaping plenty of praise on the new champions.
"They dominated us from every facet of the game," James said.
They did in the manner he appreciates most.
"That's how team basketball should be played," James added. "You know, it's selfless. Guys move, cut, pass, you've got a shot, you take it, but it's all for the team and it's never about the individual."
Of course, he knows that, when it comes to NBA chatter, it's always about the individual. And, not long after he landed with his team in Miami—flying with some of these men for the last time—most of the public's conversations wouldn't be about what the Spurs did, but what he didn't do, what he can do better and, especially, where he'll do it.
"I will deal with my summer when I get to this point," James said. "Me and my team will sit down and deal with it. I love Miami. My family loves it. But obviously right now that's not even what I'm thinking about."
He spoke of "keeping my head high," even while "I didn't do enough."
He spoke of the perspective that may be lost on the general populace.
"We're not discrediting what we were able to accomplish in these four years," James said. "We lost one, we won two, and we lost another one. Take 50 percent in four years in championships any day. Obviously, you want to win all of them, but that's just the nature of the game. You win some, you lose some."
And yet, that goes against his nature. At least what we've come to know, as he chases the greatness of ghosts. Just a day earlier, he had channeled Pat Riley's most famous utterance, the one about the stark dichotomy between winning and misery, with no other options of emotion.
"For me, it's like you either don't make the playoffs or you win a championship," James had said at the Spurs' facility, with the Heat trailing 3-1. "There's no in between. I don't want no first‑round victory, no second‑round victory, no Eastern Conference Finals. Either I don't make the playoffs or I would rather get my two months off, get my body rested or win the Finals. I don't want no in between."
But, in truth, the Heat were caught in between all season. In between the past accomplishments and their present ambitions. In between committed and careless. In between united and unglued.
It all caught up with them, as they faced a fearsome, fearless, flawless foe—one that made sure that, this time around, James and the Heat got caught between contenders and champions.