- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was nearly impossible to pull LeBron James off the basketball court.
For one, the Miami Heat star took notice of Kevin Durant’s career-high, 54-point outburst the previous night and suggested before Saturday’s game in Charlotte that he would summon some sort of response, with the two basketball buddies having picked up their pace near the midway point of the season.
Second, after pushing the Heat to a 104-96 overtime victory against the Charlotte Bobcats, James removed his shoes and jersey while still on the court. He then took an unusually long period of time to hand out his gear and sign autographs for fans before he exited the tunnel toward the visitor locker room.
Perhaps James picked up a few pointers from President Barack Obama during the Heat’s visit to the White House earlier in the week to celebrate their 2012-13 championship. Because James’ actions after Saturday’s relentless performance certainly resembled how a politician works the room after delivering a stump speech to his constituents.
In other words, James admires the recent tear Durant has been on as the league’s leading scorer tries to keep Oklahoma City afloat amid the injury absence of All-Star guard Russell Westbrook.
But the MVP incumbent in James isn’t quite ready to concede his perch or hardware just yet.
“I love when I see K.D. do something like that,” James said before Saturday’s game. “It gives me incentive. I don’t get that many shots around here, but I might be able to do a little something. I might be able to get a couple of dunks.”
James delivered on that campaign promise Saturday. Those couple of dunks he anticipated came at the start of the fourth quarter on a pair of reverse slams that helped to shake James out of a midgame slump. They were also the spark that pushed the Heat down the stretch, with James scoring 20 of his game-high 34 points in the second half and overtime.
With Dwyane Wade taking another routine night off to rest his knees, James gladly embraced the additional shot attempts that would come his way Saturday. After telling ESPN.com on Monday that he sometimes admires to the point of jealousy the number of shots Durant gets in Oklahoma City, James went out Saturday and fired up 25 shots, the second most he’s attempted in a game this season.
Asked about the shooting total after the game, James grinned and did a celebratory shoulder shimmy dance while sitting at his locker with his knees and left shoulder wrapped in bandages and his feet soaking in a bucket of ice.
For a night, at least, James got his Durant wish.
He made his first five shots against Charlotte then missed nine straight before he regained his rhythm with those fourth-quarter dunks. By the time it was over, James had made 13-of-25 from the field and 8-of-10 from the free throw line to go with eight rebounds and six assists in 45 minutes.
“I came out shooting the ball well, then I missed eight, nine straight,” said James, who missed a potential game-winning jumper at the end of regulation but scored six points in overtime. “But the game presented itself for me to be aggressive, and I was able to shoot my way out of it. It felt good. I’m icing my shoulder right now; I’m not used to that.”
To know James is to know he’s not being completely serious with this charade about longing to take more shots like Durant. James had all the shots he wanted during his seven seasons in Cleveland but ultimately elected to leave in free agency because he realized the path to NBA championships required more dominant talent at his side.
And not necessarily more touches.
Beyond that, James is a natural facilitator who is capable of scoring at will if needed.
Durant is a cold-blooded scorer who is having arguably his best season because he’s improved his overall floor game. Despite all the individual talent they’re both blessed to have, James and Durant look to each other with slight levels of envy.
Make no mistake about it, James doesn’t want to get married to the idea of having to shoot 25 to 30 times a game, like Durant, for the Heat to win these days. He just likes to flirt with the thought on occasion. He knows he’s still in possession of the prizes and prestige Durant seeks.
James owns four MVP trophies, with Durant finishing second in the voting to him three times. James also has led the Heat to the Finals the past three seasons and to the past two championships, including the one in 2012 when Miami defeated Durant and the Thunder in five games.
More than anything, this is the kind of debate James might need to spark some life back into his season as well as his team. For weeks, James has mentioned how the mental and physical toll of trying to win three straight championships has weighed on the Heat.
It’s led to their performances on the court being all over the map. At times, the Heat seem to be coasting. At other times, they appear lethargic and bored, which explains why nine of their 11 losses have come to teams with losing records. But Miami is also an aging team, with plenty of guys in their mid-30s.
Some nights they have it. Some, they don’t.
And they’ve been at this long enough to know they’re ultimately judged in June, not January. If Miami wins a third consecutive title, it will certainly be considered one of the greatest teams in NBA history. But you could just as easily argue the Heat aren’t necessarily a dominant team because of their frequent tendencies to play to the level of their competition -- and do just enough to get by.
That’s why these Durant discussions and comparisons might be good for James. He acknowledged before Saturday’s game that this could be a revision of those days back in the 1980s, when Magic Johnson used to talk about how he would read the newspaper to track Larry Bird’s performances and would then go out and try to top it the next game.
“It still happens,” James said. “It still happens, for sure.”
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made a small adjustment to make sure James had enough energy down the stretch to finish strong. After allowing James to play the entire second half in a Jan. 10 overtime loss to Brooklyn, Spoelstra said he needed to change his approach. James fouled out in the first minute of overtime against the Nets for his first disqualification in a regular-season game since 2008.
On Saturday, Spoelstra took James out of the game after those two dunks to start the fourth quarter. It was a three-minute breather that allowed James to recharge for the stretch run.
James said that break was crucial.
“We were able to give him more rest than I anticipated,” Spoelstra said of the respite. “The last couple of games I did that, I regretted it, playing him all the way through the second half. We don’t need to do that now. And he’s on board with that.”
Heat center Chris Bosh saw a different James over the final stages of the game.
“He’s so unselfish. He was making plays for us, passing and scoring down the stretch,” said Bosh, who had 25 points and seven rebounds. “And we just got some good looks every time.”
The breather midway through the fourth was the only time it seemed easy to get James off the court.
The previous night in Philadelphia, James also took his time exiting as he signed autographs. At one point, a man held his infant child in front of James to sign on his way off the court.
“That baby was adorable, man,” James said. “I could not walk by that kid [without signing]. I just couldn’t do it. When they held the baby up, it was like in the 'Lion King' movie. In certain cities, we get a lot of fans on the road. And this was one of those nights tonight. So I hung around a little bit.”
Winning games with big plays down the stretch.
Sounds like the launch of another campaign.
The Heat have a day off before finishing their six-game trip Monday in Atlanta. That means James has at least one thing on his agenda Sunday: seeing what Durant does against Sacramento.
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