CLEVELAND -- As they encountered each other in a crowded hallway for their nightly postmortem with the world's media, Tim Duncan and LeBron James had a sportsmanlike embrace. To make room for James in his arms, Duncan had to hand off the polished and shiny Larry O'Brien Trophy he was holding.
Just like that, a championship passed James by.
In the moments after his fourth season ended with a fourth straight defeat to the four-time champion Spurs, James managed to crack a smile or two. Chances are he'll be enjoying the next few days, too, celebrating the birth of his second son the morning of Game 4. At some point, though, the pain surely will kick in. Perhaps a pain he hasn't felt since he came to the NBA.
In the grand scheme, James' brief career has been nothing but one upswing after the next. In his first season, he won Rookie of the Year and the Cavs doubled their win total. In his second season, he made his first All-Star team and the Cavs had their first winning record in seven years. In his third season, he was named First Team All-NBA and led the Cavs to their first playoff series victory in 13 years before nearly pulling off an upset in the second round.
No doubt, getting the Cavs to their first-ever Finals qualifies as another step. The way he exited this time, however, left a certain emptiness.
After his dominating 48-point performance to overcome the Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, James never again soared very high.
He shot a mere 31 percent in the next five games.
The weaknesses in his game -- and his team -- were exposed and then repeatedly flicked by the Spurs as they cruised to a sweep.
The Spurs made him shoot midrange jumpers and contested 3-pointers. They bodied him coming off screens and harassed him into bunches of turnovers. They kept him from the rim, allowing just two dunks in the four games.
Surely when James passed to his teammates, there was very little help offered -- the Cavs simply are not a championship-quality team. They shot just 39 percent, were beaten at their greatest strength (rebounding) and didn't have once clutch performance in the Finals.
But the biggest chunk of blame cannot avoid James; his Finals performance was flat. He missed 20 shots Thursday night, and not even Bruce Bowen could take credit for all of it. And James knew it.
Before Game 3, lots of observers showed up three hours early to see James work out. As sweat poured off him, he went through it, hoisting shots from everywhere on the court. One reporter even timed it -- exactly 31 minutes -- to pass it on to the fans.
The thing was, at the exact same time at the other end of the floor, Duncan was quietly working on bank shots. A routine he's followed for years, a routine that shows in the Finals.
During this season, James changed his free-throw shooting style at least three times. With two weeks left in the season, he started shooting a set shot on 3-point attempts, then abandoned it for the playoffs. While his jump shot has improved since he came to the league, he fades back and to the left nearly as often as when he was a high school senior.
Which is where the pain comes in. So often the game of basketball teaches the value of process. It is seen from small-town high schools slaying inner-city giants to senior-laden mid-majors making NCAA Tournament runs to the Spurs' grinding domination of the NBA. To get there, it takes moments of failure and summers of bitterness to be turned into inspiration.
The Cavs' front office has to do its part to get James some more help. Yet the onus, too, is on James taking the setback forced upon him and using it to motivate himself to become a better player. James has been unable to avoid comparisons to great players of the past who led their teams to championships. The more well-rounded view is that many of them had to be struck down before they could fully blossom. James has now had his dose of humility; he must taste it for a while, and then he faces the challenge of joining the ranks of those who have overcome it.
"I definitely need to get better," James said in the early hours Friday. "I have to be 10 times
Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal