By the time Dragic turned around to see what’d happened, James was already on a glide path to a windmill dunk.
“I’m feeling good right now,” James said of his little in-game creativity after the steal in the Miami Heat’s quality 103-97 road victory against the Phoenix Suns, a win that came without Dwyane Wade, who sat out because of a migraine.
This season the Suns, who have been a pleasant surprise in a season filled with league-wide letdowns, have a slogan: “Ignite the Future.” It was something the marketing department came up with when the basketball department traded away veterans for young players in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season.
James’ seasonal slogan might just as well be what he said Tuesday, “I’m feeling good right now.”
He has the occasional frustration with a wayward loss, such as over the past weekend in Utah when he played a dud game. He’ll get a little irked when it’s mentioned that Kevin Durant may have closed the gap on him for best player on the planet status. But, generally, James has been skipping on air since he stood on top of the podium after Game 7 in Miami last June holding both gold trophies with that “what can you say now” grin across his face.
The mindset will eventually be challenged but not for awhile. Until then, James will be feeling quite good about himself.
That was at the root of why he was willing to declare in a recent interview with NBA TV that, “I'm going to be one of the top four that's ever played this game, for sure. And if they don't want me to have one of those top four spots, they'd better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody's gotta get bumped.”
When James listed what he felt was the current NBA Mount Rushmore, he named Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. It is hard to decide which would create more conversation, James’ statement or his choices of the peer group.
Feeling so good about himself and put at ease by interviewer Steve Smith, James continued by claiming that he’d been cheated in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting the past two years.
"To be honest, I feel I've been snubbed two years in a row [on the award], and I’m serious,” James said. “And that's one selfish thing about me I feel like I should have won it.”
Yes, that is James insisting that he’s not getting enough credit for something. He’s just letting it all go. In the golden era of his career, he clearly figures, why shouldn’t he? He fears no reprisal and, at least now, isn’t too worried about any opponent.
“We’ll play anybody, it doesn’t matter,” James said as he was basking in the win. “It doesn’t matter who it is. We’re not running from anyone.”
This is what “feeling it” sounds like, and he doesn’t seem to be shifting out of this mode anytime soon. For example why, even with all his showboat dunking for the cameras, won’t he just give his fans and sponsors what they want and just do the dunk contest just one measly time?
“I just don’t want to do it,” James said. “I’m not easily persuaded these days.”
This floating-on-air version of James will eventually fade into business, probably in the postseason when he goes into his annual technology blackout by shutting down his phone. It’s in those times when the space on the mountain will be determined.
In the end, the Mount Rushmore discussion will probably come down to quantifiable things such as ring totals, most valuable player award totals or point totals. Getting there takes lots of chiseling, though, and that’s what James was doing in Phoenix on Tuesday night.
He has had dozens of games like this over the years. Coming off a bad loss and his team needing him, he put up a mega game with 37 points, nine rebounds and five steals. When the game was settled late in the fourth quarter he came up with two baskets, two steals and four clutch free throws to bring his team home. He also threw a perfect pass out of a double team to set up Chris Bosh for a 3-pointer, the last of his 21 points, that broke the Suns.
Along the way, he threw down several dunks that wowed the crowd. Once, during a run in the third quarter, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek called a timeout while James was in mid-air on his way to a dunk. As he saw the play develop, he knew what was going to happen. Sort of like how Dragic didn’t want to look after he was caught throwing a lazy pass.
There were 17,927 people in the US Airways Center, the largest crowd of the season, many of whom had this game circled since the schedule came out. Hundreds of them crowded around the tunnel where Heat players left the floor, a scene that plays out nightly wherever James is on the NBA map. They will be telling stories of seeing that windmill dunk for a while.
It was like that for those guys on James’ Mount Rushmore when they were in the league, too. As he moves through what has become the most satisfying period in his life, James is both self-aware and self-assured, and it is turning out to be an ever-interesting process to watch.
“I’m an in-game dunker, I just jump and figured it out,” he said, talking the latest highlight on the pile. “I’ve been able to finish more than I’ve missed, so there’s that.”