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Champions no more: Even with a huge start from LeBron, the Heat reign atop NBA comes to an end

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SAN ANTONIO - LeBron James went to the bench midway through the fourth quarter, took a seat and covered his eyes with his left hand.

His night was over.

His reign atop the NBA, also over.

The only thing James plays for is championships and this season, he didn't get a chance to grasp the Larry O'Brien Trophy. A 31-point, 10-rebound effort wasn't enough to get Miami past San Antonio, and the Heat fell to the Spurs 104-87 on Sunday night.

"It's a big disappointment," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Feeling like this is an incredibly empty feeling."

So for the first time since June 21, 2012, the Heat are not NBA champions. This four-year run with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh together has seen huge success — a league-best 283 wins, four straight trips to the NBA Finals to join only the Celtics and Lakers as franchises to pull off that feat, plus two NBA championships.

They've won 71 per cent of their games in these four seasons.

Here's something that might sound surprising: The Spurs have been better over that stretch, winning 73 per cent of the time.

"Obviously, we ran up against a better team this year," James said.

And now, ready or not, here comes the summer of possible Miami discontent.

James, Wade and Bosh can all opt out of their contracts and become free agents. They'll likely all tell the Heat their plans by June 29, or two days before the free-agency window opens. Shane Battier is retiring, his career ending after 13 seasons on Sunday night. Nearly everyone else, including Mario Chalmers — who came off the bench for the first time in three years Sunday — is a free agent.

The summer, that's a topic James hasn't wanted to discuss all season and one he shrugged off again Sunday.

The end of this season still hurt way too much, and will for a while.

"We went to four straight finals in four years," James said. "You know, we're not discrediting what we were able to accomplish."

Just about every spot on the roster could be up for grabs. Backup point guard Norris Cole is under contract for next season and little-used centre Justin Hamilton has a partially guaranteed deal, though he expects to be in Miami.

There are huge questions. Wade missed about one-third of the regular season for maintenance and injuries, and clearly laboured as the NBA Finals wound down. James had a monster finals, and the Heat still lost in five games — so now the biggest issue facing Miami will be how to get him the help he needs to vie for more titles.

That is, if James even stays. He has given no indication he's leaving. He hasn't said he's staying, either.

"It's been a hell of a ride these four years," Wade said. "When we decided to play together, we didn't say, 'OK, let's try for four years.' We said let's just play together and let's see what happens. ... We'd love to be 4 for 4. It just wasn't in the cards."

James announced before the game that he would change his typical approach, which was his way of saying that he was going to be more aggressive from the outset and not worry so much about getting teammates involved in the early minutes.

"Follow my lead," he told teammates before they took the floor.

It worked. For a while, anyway.

James had 17 points and six rebounds in the first quarter, plus a spectacular chase-down block on one end and a 30-footer to beat the shot clock at the other. Miami led 22-6 in the early going, holding the Spurs to their longest scoreless start of the season. Everything was looking like the Heat got to script the way the opening minutes would go.

And then, thud.

Like so many other times in these finals, the Spurs went on a run and just kept running. By midway through the second quarter, San Antonio had the lead. Early in the third, it reached double digits. Midway through the third, it was up to 21 — which, at that point, marked a staggering 37-point turnaround from the opening moments.

In the end, the Heat became the 32nd team unable to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals, even though there was no storyline that James would have savored more than being the team to buck that trend.

"Why not us?" James asked Saturday.

The Spurs were that good. That's why not.

"At some point during the summer," Spoelstra said, "I'm sure we'll all be able to step back and realize it was a heck of a year."

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