CLEVELAND - LeBron James slipped on a pair of dark shades and lowered his head Tuesday night as he made his final stroll out of Quicken Loans Arena this season. Since it was well past 1 a.m. and pitch-black outside, the sunglasses served a dual purpose for James, allowing him to still exude some cool while hiding the pain of a second consecutive NBA Finals defeat.
James's fairy tale homecoming didn't end in a championship, despite his best efforts to uplift a run-down team and city that has been in a committed relationship with misery. But the Cleveland Cavaliers' run to the Finals provided enough inspiration to temper any disappointment — even if a somber James couldn't look beyond the immediate sorrow.
"When you fall short, it hurts and it eats at you, and it hurts me to know that I wish I could have done better and done more," James said. "But it just wasn't our time."
The Cavaliers are a relevant franchise again after going further than even James expected when the season began, back when the prodigal son preached patience. They steamrolled through the Eastern Conference despite losing Kevin Love to a separated shoulder and pulled off more wins against the champion Golden State Warriors than most pundits expected when the team lost Kyrie Irving to a fractured kneecap.
And they established a gritty, resilient identity that — when paired with James and healthy versions of Irving and Love — offers encouragement for repeated Finals trips, and possible championships, in the future.
"What's evident to everyone is what a spectacular basketball player that LeBron is," Cavaliers Coach David Blatt said. "But he has become a great leader of his team. He's become a guy that has evolved in terms of his role within the team and within the whole concept of what it is that we want to be about."
Though James didn't win a title in his first season with the Heat, the lessons learned from that humiliating defeat forced him to get better and he went on to win back-to-back championships. James' fourth loss in the Finals — and second with Cleveland — offered a few more lessons, fueled by desperation over despair.
Without Love and Irving, James morphed into a more determined and defiant player who refused to be deterred by the shortcomings of his limited teammates. The Cavaliers reluctantly became an isolation-centric team in the postseason, but James's desire to fearlessly attack with a win-at-all costs mind-set showed that he is mastering the mental side of the game as his body prepares to hit an inevitable decline.
"It was what was needed," James said. "If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had."
James continues to tower over the Eastern Conference, which doesn't have a team or an individual talent that threatens to dethrone him anytime soon.
"You lose in the Finals, they're all disappointing. Doesn't matter if I'm playing in Miami or playing in Cleveland or playing on Mars," James said. "I lost in the Finals four times. I'm almost starting to be like, l'd rather not even make it to the playoffs than to lose in the Finals. If I'm lucky enough to get there again, it will be fun to do it."