MIAMI -- As the clock ran out and the confetti began to fall, LeBron James stood alone. Unlike the unburdening of his championship breakthrough last season, he did not break down -- did not raise his arms toward the sky, did not buckle under the emotion of the moment.
The first thing he did was embrace Tony Parker. He made his way around the court, slapping hands and hugging teammates and opponents. He was in no hurry, felt no need to rush the moment.
As James made his way around the floor, obscured now under an avalanche of confetti, he strutted with the comfortable gait of a man who has been a champion before -- and will be again.
He knows the truth, though. The cruel truth had just played out on this very basketball court, with James' Heat sending Tim Duncan and the Spurs home without another championship on Thursday night -- the great Duncan walking away in Finals defeat for the first time in his 16th season.
Nothing is guaranteed.
"Last year when I was sitting up here with my first championship, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done," James said after the Heat beat the Spurs 95-88 for their second straight title. "This year, I tell last year he was absolutely wrong. This was the toughest championship right here, between the two."
It was another brilliant closeout performance from James on Thursday night, another all-encompassing display of his diverse gifts and relentless determination. The hastily formed dynasty had to beat the team of our generation to do this, to cement James' place in history as a two-time, back-to-back champion.
The way it had to happen -- an improbable comeback in the final seconds of Game 6, two point-blank misses from Tim Duncan in the final minute of Game 7 -- was the perfect metaphor for James' journey back to the top, for the fragility of it all. What everyone thought would be easy was not. What James had so boldly promised when he arrived here three years ago -- multiple championships -- had to slither away from the Spurs and into James' eager grasp.
In the end, history will not care. History will record James' multiple championships forever, and his 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists in Game 7. It will record Duncan's heartache, too, and that's the other part of this lesson -- a lesson that James may someday have to learn as well.
"To be in a Game 6, up one [game] with two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it," Duncan said, "that's tough to swallow."
It is hard to win championships -- no matter who you are, no matter how many you've won. Winning one -- or in James' case, two, in Dwyane Wade's case, three, or in Duncan's case, four -- does not guarantee you will do it again. And winning in the past does not make losing, having one slip away, any easier to accept.
So as the champagne-soaked party raged on in the Heat locker room, as Wade sat quietly by himself for a moment on the floor in the hallway to "soak it all in," he said, Duncan sat at the interview table. Distraught.
He averted his eyes from the camera lights, rubbed his forehead with his palm and struggled through the answers. The point-blank, running hook shot with Shane Battier guarding him with 48 seconds left and the Heat leading 90-88 hit the back of the rim and bounced right back to him. Duncan's putback attempt hit nothing -- just floated away into history.
"For me," Duncan said, "Game 7 is going to haunt me."
On the podium now, a "Champions" cap on his head and flanked by the Larry O'Brien Trophy and his second Finals MVP trophy, James was experiencing the other side of the struggle. He's experienced both. If Duncan's heartache is any proof, James probably will experience both again.
"It makes you want to work even harder," James said.
After losing to Dallas in 2011, a stunning repudiation of his decision to join Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, James turned within himself and understood the need to change. At 28 now, 10 years to the week after he was drafted, there is no turning back. There is no avoiding the struggle, the striving. There is no telling how many he will win, no way to predict how often he will feel the elation of being a champion or the devastation of seeing one slip away. James, Wade, Duncan, Kobe Bryant -- none of them was ever entitled to any of this.
"I know the grass isn't always going to be green," James said, "and there's going to be trials and tribulations."
James spoke of what's next, spoke of wanting to be "if not the greatest, one of the greatest to ever play this game." He came into the NBA a decade ago with that burden, with that mandate. He's on the road, understanding that the struggle does not get easier.
Six years ago, when Duncan's Spurs swept James' Cavaliers in the Finals, the great Duncan told James, "Your time is coming." Now, his second championship secured, James promised to rest his body and put away the basketballs for a while. He spoke of his impending nuptials, a wedding that he "might've called off" had the Heat lost, he said, but one that would now be "an unbelievable wedding."
He thanked his critics: "Please continue to motivate me. I need you guys."
He rose from his seat, popped an unlit cigar triumphantly in his mouth, and disappeared behind a curtain, to celebrate. The celebrations never get old, can never be taken for granted.
Less than an hour earlier, Duncan had risen from the same table and taken the long, winding walk around the interview room and toward the exits. He walked fast; a PR man could barely keep up. Duncan's head was down, his hands we tucked deeply into his jeans pockets. Without another word, he was gone.
Still a champion, but not tonight.