- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- LeBron James stood beneath a basket at the far end of the Miami Heat's practice facility Thursday holding a basketball in one hand and talking to an assistant coach.
A few moments later, the three-time MVP walked past reporters without stopping and headed directly to the training room for another round of treatment before the Heat departed Miami for Friday's game in Charlotte.
Normally, the visual of James on the court with a ball in his hands is a daily occurrence. But on Thursday, all things considered, it was a sign of progress.
“He was able to do some shooting today,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James. “That was a good sign. But he's spending a lot more time with our training staff than he is with us. And that's where we want to keep it right now.”
Spoelstra and a couple of Heat teammates spoke on James' behalf Thursday because James didn't speak for himself.
The Heat have a long-standing team rule that allows players to bypass routine sessions with reporters on days they don't participate in practices or games. So with James idle during most of Thursday's workout and expected to again sit out Friday against the Bobcats, the relative silence regarding the extent of his sore hamstring might be deafening to some.
A career season for James that has already featured many firsts could include yet another if a nagging injury sidelines the Heat star when the teams with the best and worst records in the league meet Friday in Charlotte.
It would be the first time James has missed three consecutive games as a member of the Heat. James hasn't played since this past Friday's win in New Orleans, in which he sustained what the team initially said was a strained right hamstring in the second half. Since then, Heat officials have slightly backed off that diagnosis and now say James is basically recovering from general fatigue in his legs.
In other words, James is somewhere between a state of rest and a road to recovery. So it begs the question: Should his recent absences be a cause for concern or a cue that James is finally taking the right approach to recharge for the postseason after playing seemingly nonstop at a high level for the past 16 months, counting the 2012 Olympics?
The answer is sort of both.
With the 27-game winning streak now behind the Heat and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs already secured, there's not a more opportune time than now for James and several other rotation players to get a much-needed reprieve over the final days of the regular season.
But just when it seems easy to dismiss James' sitting out as simply getting a break, Spoelstra insists he's dealing with a legitimate ailment that has required extensive treatment and stretching sessions each day since he tweaked the hamstring in New Orleans. Spoelstra also said the Heat would have taken the same approach with James had the nagging injury occurred earlier in the season.
Spoelstra was asked Thursday whether James would be cleared to play if he went to the staff and expressed any concerns about losing his rhythm amid all the recent rest.
“We're not at that point, so we want to make sure we take care of that [hamstring] before it becomes a concern,” Spoelstra said. “And those can quickly become concerns. So every day, we re-evaluate. Every day, we're proactive.”
And for another day, fans who show up to the arena expecting to see the league's biggest star in action will have to settle for visuals of James in fashionable street clothes occasionally jumping out of his seat to support teammates.
James hasn't been alone in that regard. Heat guard Dwyane Wade has missed four of the past six games, and also is expected to sit Friday to rest a sore right knee and ankle. Starting point guard Mario Chalmers is expected to miss his fourth straight game with a sore right ankle, and Spoelstra said Thursday that veteran guard Ray Allen likely will get a day off to rest his surgically repaired ankle.
What set James apart is that during his first two seasons in Miami, he was the last willing participant to partake in Spoelstra's end-of-the-schedule maintenance program, in which players who logged heavy minutes throughout the season are given routine nights off before the playoffs.
But now, James is one of the first players on board. Last week, James said he would welcome a few games off to give his body and mind a break as the Heat pushed through the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.
“I hate sitting,” James said at the time. “But for the better of the team, for the better of myself, I may have to sit here and there for the last couple of weeks. I have bumps and bruises like everyone else has in this league that probably could use some rest. But I hate resting.”
But resting James -- even if the hamstring issue is a bit exaggerated -- isn't just the right thing to do.
It's the only thing.
There's no error in erring on the side of caution. Perhaps no team better understands how precious and precarious health can be in the playoffs than the Heat. They don't have to look back any further than last season, when Wade dragged his balky left knee into the playoffs and played on one leg.
Wade eventually needed the knee to be drained of excess fluid midway through the second-round series against the Indiana Pacers, and the Heat had to rally from a 2-1 series deficit to advance to the conference finals.
It was then, against Boston, when Chris Bosh returned to the lineup for the Heat after suffering an abdominal injury in the first game of the previous series against the Pacers.
Wade quietly carried a nagging injury into the playoffs.
Bosh ran into one after the Heat got into the postseason.
This time around, the Heat are being extra cautious to avoid that sort of fate going into the playoffs later this month. That's why, in part, the team isn't taking any chances by leaving players behind on road trips the rest of the way.
“We're traveling with our entire training staff,” Spoelstra said. “So they'll get a whole lot more done there [on the road] than they would just resting here. It just made a whole lot more sense to bring them.”
For now, James should take all the time he needs. Miami's current Big Three priorities are rest, rehab and regroup.
That's also the recipe for James' postseason rhythm.
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