Dwight Howard(notes) was hugging Hedo Turkoglu(notes), dreams of Beating L.A. dancing in their heads. James wasn't bothering to stick around to shake hands, offer congratulations or pretend there was a bright side to the Magic ousting his Cleveland Cavaliers from the East finals with a 103-90 victory in Game 6.
James was off the floor before the confetti could hit his shoulders.
He later dressed in silence in a corner of the locker room then put on some gold, oversized headphones and headed for the door. Normally one of the last to leave, he was now one of the first. With anger and frustration evident in each step, he charged through the back halls of Amway Arena without greeting anyone, got on the team bus and soon was off to the airport.
LeBron was gone. The King was silent.
The fallout from this defeat will echo loudly all summer, though, the pressure mounting on Cavs general manager Danny Ferry.
Whether this was James' ultra-competitiveness overwhelming his emotions or a sign of his frustration with a front office that in six seasons has failed to give him the supporting cast capable of winning a championship remains to be seen.
LeBron James, 24, is a free agent after next season and while he's never said he would leave Cleveland, he's never said he wouldn't. As such, this move – his every move, actually – will be analyzed as the psyche of a championship-starved city hangs in the balance.
James doesn't need a bigger market to be a global icon (a now-doomed Nike puppet advertising campaign is proof of that). And he doesn't seem to possess the personality that covets the bright lights of New York or L.A. (he still lives near Akron and mostly hangs out with high school buddies or his longtime girlfriend and two young children).
He may need to leave to win a championship, though.
"Going into the playoffs we were confident that we were going to be in the NBA Finals and we were confident that we were going to win it," Williams said. "I can understand [James'] disappointment because I'm feeling the same disappointment."
There's little sense in criticizing James for not speaking with the media Saturday – it's the only thing he didn't do in this series. He averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists. He offered leadership and defense. He saved Game 2 with an all-timer of a buzzer-beater.
And it wasn't even close to enough.
Cleveland players said James did speak to them briefly in the stunned locker room and, according to Daniel Gibson(notes), said "we just need to keep working." It was clear to everyone, however, he was taking this defeat hard.
A 66-win regular season left the Cavs optimistic they had found the parts for a championship, but deep in the playoffs, where intensity is matched and matchups get intense, the limitations are clear.
The Cavs were swept in the 2007 Finals and now have failed to get out of the East the last two seasons.
In this game, from the time the Magic trotted out the booming voice of 7-year-old Gina Marie Incandela for the national anthem to a fourth quarter filled with chants of "MVP" and "Beat L.A.," it wasn't so much a contest as a 2½-hour pep rally for the Finals.
All of Cleveland's recurring problems kept accruing. Howard had 40 points and 14 rebounds as he tore through the not-prime-time frontcourt of Anderson Varejao(notes) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes). Williams had 17 point, but showed in this series he isn't ready to be this generation's Scottie Pippen.
The entire bench combined for just 10 points and five rebounds. Other than James, the roster lacked the size and athletic ability to deal with perimeter threats Rashard Lewis(notes) and Rafer Alston(notes).
Cleveland had the best player in this series. Orlando had the next four.
"I think this team is right there," Williams said. "We just have to do a little bit more."
What they have to do is get a little bit more. Despite boasting one of the highest payrolls in the league and having a half-dozen years to put together the roster, the Cavs are still a player or two away. Where Ferry finds them is the question.
He has only the midlevel salary-cap exception to spend on free agents. The Cavs discussed acquiring Shaquille O'Neal(notes) at the trade deadline, but the Phoenix Suns balked at taking back Ben Wallace(notes). The Cavs have some pieces, but no margin for error on anything less than the perfect move.
It begins with the need for a big man because it's not like the 23-year-old Howard is going anywhere. The Magic are no fluke, they're more than capable of beating the Lakers.
"How many games could [Cleveland] win without LeBron James?" Jerry West asked rhetorically to Reuters. By way of comparison, when Michael Jordan skipped the 1993-94 season to play baseball, the remaining Chicago Bulls won 55. West likely doubts the non-LeBron Cavs would get to 40.
Yet it is Kobe's team, rebuilt on the fly after a stretch of mediocrity from 2005-07 that will host Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday. The Lakers will meet the Magic, who have surrounded their young star, Howard, with the perfect complementary parts.
Meanwhile LeBron waits. He's never publicly criticized a teammate, coach or front-office decision. And he didn't Saturday.
Maybe Gloria James taught him that if you don't have anything nice to say, then it's best to say nothing at all. Just head for the bus, the booming beats of the headphones droning out the questions about the immediate past and the long-term future.
- LeBron James