MIAMI -- As the Mavericks dribbled out the clock, time winding down to a championship so many years in the making for so many, the ages collided before our eyes. There was Dirk Nowitzki embracing Jason Kidd, nearly three decades of experience and scars coming together. And there was LeBron James, making eye contact with Dwyane Wade from 50 feet away as a celebration broke out on their home floor.
As the seconds ticked away, James ripped his jersey from his shorts and peered toward Wade, who was standing near the Miami bench. It was Wade who so boldly recruited James to come help him win championships, and now the original star of the Heat had been swallowed up by his worst career disappointments. Now, at the bitter end, he just stood there -- sharing a moment with James that neither envisioned.
James approached him, and they shook hands and briefly embraced. James found Chris Bosh, the third wheel in Miami's Big Three, and they embraced, too. The celebration was only beginning for the Mavs, and a couple thousand of their fans who boke out in "Let's go Mavs" chants as the Larry O'Brien Trophy was wheeled onto the court.
|Mavericks-Heat: Game 6|
The Mavericks simply were the better team Read More >>
But not for the team that everyone thought the trophy should have been mailed to last July. Not for the team some thought couldn't be defeated. It was for the team that played like one, a team with old-man game and a certain guile that only comes with experiencing failure.
"If you're in this league for 13 years of just battling," Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki said, "and playoffs the last basically 10 years, 11 years, and always coming up a little short, that's why this is extra special."
It is special for the Mavericks, a team whose biggest star was always the owner, but a team that now was able to prove that star power and headlines don't trump experience and teamwork. Surviving a 1-of-12 shooting performance from Nowitzki in the first half, the Mavs captured their first NBA title Sunday night with a 105-95 victory over the Heat to win the Finals in six games.
"If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would never have put all the work and the time in that I have over the last 13 years," said Nowitzki, who scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, when Miami's star-studded duo, James and Wade, was once again silenced.
For those who love fluid, disciplined offense and resourceful defense -- for those rooting for Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, two Hall of Famers desperately seeking the validation of a ring -- there was no better outcome. But everyone knew that was a subplot in this series, an afterthought in the final analysis of a championship stage forever altered by the teaming of James and Wade.
"Miami's time is going to come," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "Their talent is undeniable. At some point, it's going to carry the day, there's no doubt about that. But their time is not now."
If any coach was going to utter those words at the end of the 100-plus-game journey of this remarkable season in the NBA, surely it would be Doc Rivers of the Celtics or Phil Jackson of the Lakers. But here was Carlisle, a grunt player from the old Celtics days, boiling all of it down for us in its most basic form -- as only a basketball lifer could.
"It wasn't about high-flying star power," Carlisle said. "Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn't doing? When are people going to talk about the purity of our game and what these guys accomplished?"
That's what it should be about. But James and Wade changed that, altered the landscape of the sport and got swallowed up by their own ethos. Every day was a new controversy, a renewed test of their ability to co-exist and stand up to the unbearable weight they welcomed on their shoulders.
Some of it was media-created, still more of it media-driven, but in the end, it didn't matter from what direction it came. The two stars and friends were left standing in hopeless astonishment after being outplayed, outsmarted, and outclassed by something they both decided they would leave behind when they joined forces: a team in the traditional sense, one not outshined by the brilliance of modern basketball stardom nor dragged down by its flaws.
"The more time we get to think about it and think about how close the opportunity [was] that we had, it will burn inside of us as competitors," Wade said. "At the end of the day, it will drive us back to this position again."
Right to the end, the Heat's dynamic duo were bogged down by silliness, a tone-deaf sense of entitlement and smugness that will have to change in dramatic ways for them to reach their goals together. James kept saying Sunday night, "I won't hold my head low," but the time had come for that -- for contrition -- and James couldn't deliver that, either.
|LeBron James shows his frustration during a Game 6 loss to Dallas. (Getty Images)|
And then James did it again Sunday night, lashing out instead of recoiling into the proper posture, which would have been grace in defeat. It was yet another moment in these Finals that James failed to seize, and you almost sensed that Wade -- sitting next to him for their final, awkward co-news conference of this season -- couldn't believe what he was hearing. Nobody else in the room could.
This was James, who had scored 11 points in the fourth quarter of the first five games, coming up even smaller than he did in Game 6 -- when incomprehensively, the self-proclaimed King dragged the Heat down with a minus-24 when he was on the floor. Somehow, the player who had subjected so many teams and executives to a suck-up fest for his services last summer had been the Heat's third-leading scorer in these Finals -- behind Wade and Bosh.
Asked if it bothered him that so many people were happy to see him fail, James somehow managed to achieve his low point in a year that began with his previous lowest of lows, "The Decision."
"Absolutely not," James said. "Because at the end of the day, all the people that were rooting for me to fail, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that."
And it got worse.
"They can get a few days, or a few months, or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal," James said. "But they have to get back to the real world at some point."
In other words: Hate away, everybody. You'll never be me.
Down the hall from those sour notes -- not to mention grapes -- there was a room full of people who would never in a million years trade places with James. There was Tyson Chandler, downing a bottle of champagne like it was the last one on Earth and saying, "Regardless of what anybody ever says about my career, they've got to say I'm a champion." This from a guy who, like James, went from high school to the NBA -- a No. 2 pick nearly a decade ago who has something James does not, something James and Wade could not manufacture.
"I think a lot of people got caught up in the Big Three and what they can do -- and they're tough," Chandler said. "But we had to concentrate on the fact that only one guy can have the ball in his hands at once."
As the clock wound down toward midnight and the great Hall of Famers, Nowitzki and Kidd, were celebrating, at long last, their elusive championship, the silence in the Heat locker room spoke volumes. In a side room around the corner from the double-doors, a meeting of the minds was under way among some Heat basketball officials, Nike reps, and James' agent, Leon Rose. William "World Wide Wes" Wesley, whose fingerprints were all over this Heat creation, was on his way.
On the other side of the arena, the clock reading nine minutes past midnight now, James walked behind a phalanx of security and plopped down on the back of a golf cart. He stared blankly ahead as cameras filmed and reporters clicked cell-phone pics of the moment the season ended for the non-champions. Wade was next, sitting down next to James and resting his forehead in his left hand. Neither said a word.
The golf cart slowly pulled away, the two stars who couldn't beat a team being ferried toward the exits on a remarkable night -- the end of a year-long journey the likes of which we've never seen. This was a ride of shame that James and Wade have taken before, but never together. Never in a moment this bitter and unfulfilling.
The cart disappeared around a bend in the hallway, the high-pitched bleating of its horn growing quiet, until you couldn't hear it anymore. The sounds of a championship journey gone wrong vanishing into the night.