MILWAUKEE -- LeBron James has played more than 800 preseason, regular-season and playoff games in his NBA career, scoring in excess of 20,000 points if you pile them all together.
Never has he played a game like Monday night.
Unlike many of his great games, though, this was subtle. But that did not make it unimpressive.
He had four dunks in the Heat’s 114-96 victory, breaking a three-game Miami losing streak to the Milwaukee Bucks that dated to last year and stuck out like a neon sign on their record this season. The dunks, however, were not the show.
Not even the one when he went from outside the 3-point line to the rim in one dribble thanks to a split double team, a long stride and a 13-foot leap. It bent the traveling rules but didn’t break them, believe it or not.
No, James’ dominance came with his decision-making and his endless execution. He took 21 shots. He made 16. One of them, just one, was outside 15 feet from the rim. That one was from 18 feet and it came on his 20th shot of the night.
You can go back and look at the film of those 800 games, but it’ll be a waste of time. There hasn’t been anything else like it.
James killed the Bucks for 35 points in just 33 minutes on the floor and all of it came on relentless interior play. None of them will make the highlights like that long-range dunk. James just made shot after shot after shot from the post and from mid-range.
“How can you guard me when I’m playing like that?” James said afterwards, repeating a question. “You can’t, I don’t think.”
In other words, this was the type of game experts have wanted to see from James for his whole career. The value, coming on a mundane Monday in February at the Bradley Center, is relatively low. Doing that in, say, an NBA Finals game sure would lend some credence to just how focused James has been in adjusting his game.
But it has to start somewhere. James has been building toward this type of game all season. Overall, his field goal percentage is nearly 55 percent, easily the highest of his career. His shooting percentage in postups is 55 percent, the best in the NBA according to the computers at Synergy Sports.
Seeing it in a spreadsheet and seeing it in person are different things. James was 8-of-8 shooting from the left block alone, for example, completely wearing out the Bucks’ defense. Some of them were heavily contested and he wouldn’t make them every night. But the fact that he kept going to it -- heck, James even took a few so-called “heat check” shots from the post -- was quite a difference from what his whole career has been about.
“LeBron is seventh in the league in field goal percentage,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. “I don’t know what LeBron or Erik (Spolestra) would think about how many difficult shots he takes, but he can make them. Maybe they’re not difficult for him.”
Skiles and the Bucks in general have a history of playing rope-a-dope with James by baiting him with the long jumper. During James’ career, he’s lost games in Milwaukee when he scored 50 points and twice when he’s scored 40 points. One happened less than two weeks ago, when the Bucks absorbed a 24-point first quarter and then let James fall in love with the isolation long jumper, even when it stopped falling in the second half.
That was pointed out to James quite pointedly in the pregame film session. He took the information and applied it. And the Bucks were cooked.
What comes now is the question of whether this was an outlier -- the popular statistician’s term for a freak performance -- or is it the start of James really understanding and trusting what he’s been developing.
“I was trying to be aggressive,” James said with a shrug. “I’m just playing good ball.”