Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Updated: December 19, 3:20 AM ET
LeBron keeping the wheels turning
By Michael Wallace
MIAMI -- LeBron James can't stand himself right now.
After leading the Miami Heat to a 103-92 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, James declared there's a fierce battle within, a tug-of-war for his health.
And right now, James is on the attack.
At stake is his conditioning.
That explains why the three-time league MVP has been bike-riding -- roundtrip -- to recent games from his Coconut Grove home to the Heat's downtown arena, which he estimates has been a 40-minute bike commute each way.
And perhaps it's that personal assault within that kept James pushing through the entire second half Tuesday, without a rest, despite the Heat leading by as many as 19 points at one stage midway through the fourth quarter.
After all of the physical demands James has subjected himself to this year, conventional wisdom would suggest his body should have given out a long time ago.
Instead, James refuses to give in.
"As a leader, I just want to push through it," James said after he finished with 22 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and four blocks against the Timberwolves.
"And I've got a personal vendetta against myself right now, so I'm just trying to push the button, I guess. Push the envelope, because I don't like me."
James said he was joking about that last part.
But there's no denying the fact that he's fighting fatigue. The work James has put in during a phenomenal year is catching up to him. That proverbial wall is ahead, yet he's determined to crash through as if it's a side-stepping defender clearing out of the way as he barrels to the rim.
Many will look toward the Heat's showdown next week on Christmas Day against the Oklahoma City Thunder in a rematch of last year's NBA Finals as the one-year mark of an extensive stretch of work for James.
But in actuality, that anniversary date was Tuesday night.
It was Dec. 18, 2011 when James and the Heat played their preseason opener against the Orlando Magic after the lockout. Since then, James has played 129 games in a 365 days when counting the 2011-12 preseason, regular season and playoffs, Team USA exhibitions, the Summer Olympics and the 2012-13 NBA preseason and regular season slate.
James played exactly 4,709 minutes in those 129 games, which included 42 minutes Tuesday during a physical game that saw him play every tick of the second half. When James was presented with those numbers after the game, it was the only time he was halted in his tracks.
"Come on, man, you serious?" James said when approached by ESPN.com Tuesday night. "I didn't know that. I knew it was a lot, but I didn't realize it was like that."
What's even more impressive about James' year-long run -- one that has garnered him regular-season and Finals MVPs and an Olympic gold medal -- is the fact that he has had exactly five games off during that time. He missed four games last season for rest and nagging injuries and has played in all but a preseason home game against San Antonio due to "general soreness" this season.
James this season has been part Energizer Bunny and part Wolverine, two characters he's either called himself or has heard teammates call him since he joined the Heat. It has gotten to the point where teammates and opponents simply shrug their shoulders. Forty-two minutes and flirting with a triple-double is just another routine night shift for James.
"I would have preferred that it would have been 37 (minutes) if we could have taken that lead to 25," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He wasn't even breathing heavy. He's been biking so much. He's turning the corner right now in terms of conditioning. It's world class."
It's also risky.
That also was evident Tuesday. At one point in the fourth quarter, both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were on the bench resting, with their minutes in the 20s range and the game seemingly out of reach. James never came out. Much of that decision is his own call. But part of it is on Spoelstra, who needed insurance if Minnesota made a run.
The Timberwolves did. And James kept running.
"It's his biggest attribute," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "He could be playing the fourth game in five nights and you just look at him and he's just fresh. That's a part of his aura. The reason why LeBron has this aura of invincibility is he just never looks tired. I don't know if anyone has ever taught him that or it's just natural. But it's intimidating."
Kevin Love, Minnesota's All-Star forward and one of the league's most relentless players, can't comprehend how James continues to push and push and push.
"I was around LeBron all summer, and everybody knows he's a freak of nature," said Love, who played with James on Team USA in London last summer. "He's very, very durable and he has this size and strength. He just continues to get bigger and better. Everybody knows he's going to be a problem (for opponents) for a long time."
Just how much longer is anyone's guess. The Heat had some fun at James' expense this week when the team gathered for their annual holiday party. The highlight of the event is a satirical video spoof, this time one in which a rather hefty arena employee mimicked James in the locker room by donning a No. 6 jersey and going through stretching motions while gorging on protein bars.
"It was funny as hell, because the dude had a bad body and all," Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem said. "That's what made it a spoof. Because we know that's not LeBron. But if he lets himself go, that's how he'll look in about 10 years."
For now, James has it on cruise control. Literally. But what the public doesn't see is the time he spends treating the nagging bumps and bruises that crop up every other game.
One week, it's a bruised shoulder. The next, it's a sprained ankle. Injuries that would force most players to sit a game or two hardly keep James out of game-day shootarounds.
But there's a hefty price to pay behind closed doors.
"He practically lives on the treatment table," Bosh said. "You can do your body well by doing all those things, but just staying in it mentally is a huge challenge."
Bosh said he knows there might be a time at some point this season when LeBron hits that wall, when his body will simply send a message that it's time to shut it down a bit. It's only human nature. And James is human, right?
"It might happen," Bosh said. "But then again, he's a freak, so it might not. But just in case it does, I think we have guys ready to pick up more of the load and help him out. We understand he can't do everything. He's the greatest player in the world. And he has the greatest cast in the world. But if we need to carry extra baggage, we will."
For now, James is fine with the heavy lifting.
He's been doing it for exactly a year.
"Yesterday, I was extremely tired, but I got some more work in," James said. "I feel great. I didn't get tired (Tuesday). Espeically in the second half. I could have played again if we had to."
So the battle continues for James.
But at some point, Spoelstra might need to step in and stop this fight. No need to wear out the warrior before the real battles begin heading into the playoffs.
It's already been a busy year for James.
One hundred and twenty-nine games, 4,709 minutes, 365 days.