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MIAMI (AP) — The season began with LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach.
It ended with Dirk Nowitzki taking the NBA championship trophy there for a late-night celebration.
Soaked in champagne in their locker room and spraying more around at a Miami Beach club hours later, the Dallas Mavericks not only added at least another year to James' wait for an NBA title, but they got to have the season's biggest — and final — party.
Jason Terry scored 27 points, Nowitzki scored 21 on his way to MVP honors, and the Mavs topped the Miami Heat 105-95 on Sunday night to win the NBA title in six games.
"Nobody can ever take this away from us again," Nowitzki said. "And for one year, we were the best team that was out there. That feels amazing."
Added Terry: "We got vindication."
James did not.
His eighth season ended like the previous seven — without a title. For the second time, he lost in the finals, this defeat added to the four-game sweep San Antonio put on his Cleveland team in 2007. And a season that began with Miami celebrating the signings of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh ended before many of the same fans and on the very same floor, the promise of championships not yet fulfilled.
"Any time you feel like you get to the top of the mountain and you fall off, there's definitely a personal failure," James said.
He scored 21 points for Miami, which got 19 from Bosh, 18 from Mario Chalmers and 17 from Dwyane Wade. James shook hands afterward and departed before most of the Mavs tugged on their championship hats and T-shirts. Bosh doubled over halfway down the hall in anguish, covering his face. Wade tugged his jersey off as he walked from the court for the season's final time.
"Neither team deserved this championship more than the other, but Dallas earned it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Make no mistake: Miami lost the finals, but the blame will be directed at James. Even he knew that after the way he left Cleveland with "The Decision" and all the animus that generated not just in his native Ohio but around the entire league.
Especially after he uttered in an hourlong televised special that he was going to "take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," the only thing he knew would silence some critics was a title.
Instead, he got more criticism — a thinly veiled jab from his former owner with the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, who reveled in the moment on Twitter.
"Old Lesson for all: There are NO SHORTCUTS. NONE," Gilbert wrote.
And the winning owner, Mark Cuban, took what may be perceived as a jab as well: "I could care less about the Heat," he said.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle joined an elite group, those with NBA titles as both a player and a head coach. Others on that list include the presumably retired-for-good Phil Jackson, one of Carlisle's mentors in K.C. Jones, and Heat President Pat Riley — who led Miami past Dallas in 2006, and was the mastermind of what the Heat did last summer with an eye on becoming a dynasty.
It might still happen.
Just not as soon as Miami would have liked.
"This is a true team," Carlisle said. "This is an old bunch. We don't run fast or jump high. These guys had each other's backs. We played the right way."
Hating the Heat became the NBA's craze this season, and the team knew it had no shortage of critics. To the end, Miami said it wasn't bothered by that. Oddly, the Mavericks got a boost from the phenomenon.
"We could feel it," Carlisle said, noting he was repeatedly told during the finals that "billions" of people wanted to see Dallas topple Miami.
Given their newfound popularity, meet the new America's Team.
Sorry, Cowboys — your long-held moniker might have to be ceded to your city's NBA club.
Carlisle said Riley came down to congratulate the Mavericks after the game, showing "unbelievable class." Nowitzki and Wade exchanged texts after the 2006 finals MVP was unable to reach the 2011 finals MVP during the on-court celebration to shake hands.
"Their time will come," Carlisle said. "But now, it's our time."
When the Mavericks took a 2-0 lead in Dallas during the '06 finals, plans for their victory parade were announced. The Mavs didn't win another game in that series.
Now, that parade will finally happen, with city officials in Dallas saying it could be several days away. And when it's over, then the league's uncertainty will truly begin. Labor strife likely awaits, and although more talks geared toward movement on a new deal are scheduled for this week, both owners and players are bracing for a lockout to begin once the collective bargaining agreement expires June 30.
Late Sunday night, the CBA was the last thing on the mind of the new champions of the NBA, whom Carlisle called "the most special team I've ever been around."
Jason Kidd, at 38 years old, got his first championship. Nowitzki got his at 32, Terry at 33. They were featured on the video screen in their building in Dallas during this series on what seemed like a constant loop, each posing with the NBA trophy and looking longingly at it, standing mere inches from it, as if to say "so close, yet so far away."
"Everybody is happy that we lost," Heat guard Eddie House said. "Period."
Nowitzki sealed it with 2:27 left, hitting a jumper near the Miami bench to put Dallas up 99-89, and some fans actually began leaving. Nowitzki walked to the Mavs' side slowly, right fist clenched and aloft.
He knew it. Everyone did.
"We feel it," Wade said. "We'll feel it even more tomorrow."
Added Bosh: "Hands down, they were the better team in this series. ... All we can do is just admit it and move forward."
James called Sunday's game a pop quiz, the last test to see if the season unlike any other would go down as a success.
It did not.
"We ran into a team that at this time is obviously better than us," Wade said.
Miami had chances to take command and wasted them all. The Heat missed 13 of their 33 free throws, let the Mavericks score 27 points off turnovers and simply could not get a rebound in the final minutes.
Nowitzki finished 9 for 27, and the Mavs still won. He was 1 for 12 in the first half, and they were still ahead, 53-51, thanks largely to Terry's 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
"Was he unbelievable tonight or what?" marveled Nowitzki.
Down the stretch, Terry made another contribution. He grabbed Nowitzki during a time-out, telling him, "Remember '06." The final minutes belonged to Dirk and the Mavs, and a few German flags waved in Miami's arena during the postgame celebration.
"This feeling, to be on the best team in the world, it's just undescribable," Nowitzki said.
James didn't score in the second half until a layup with 1:49 remained in the third — his first field-goal attempt since 1:05 remained in the half.
Kidd made a 3-pointer late in the period, pushing the Dallas lead to 79-71, and it seemed like the only people standing in the arena were the players, referees, Cuban and a few guys around the Dallas bench.
The Heat spent the second half chasing the Mavericks, never catching them.
"I can't believe the journey," said Kidd, who lost two previous finals trips with the New Jersey Nets. "The journey, the character of my teammates telling me they wanted to get me a championship. Tonight they came out and played well. I came here twice, this being my third time so third time was the lucky charm."
Of the principal characters from the 2006 series, only Cuban, Nowitzki and Terry remain from the Mavericks' side. Terry won't have to get his tattoo — the one of the NBA championship trophy — removed, which he vowed to have done if Miami won this series. Nowitzki will never be in the conversation of 'Best player without a title' again.
James is clearly the one with that most-unwanted label now.
As the night wore on, the smell of champagne permeated from the Dallas locker room, while Miami's was cleaned and vacuumed quickly, towels picked up, shower shoes stacked neatly before each player's locker. Nearby, in the team's usual postgame interview room, the Mavericks posed with the championship trophy, whooping in joy as Miami players filed out in stunned disbelief.
"The Greater Man upstairs know when it's my time," James tweeted. "Right now isn't the time."