In The Middle Of Things, LeBron Rising Highest
MIAMI -- There's midseason form and then there's mid-career form. Then there's midseason, mid-career form.
Less than two months off his 28th birthday, LeBron James might be showing what the prime years of his career could look like. He says he's in the best shape of his life, he's in the midst of the hottest shooting streak and one of the hottest scoring streaks of his life and he's playing with an energy and a mental freedom he's never quite shown before.
With all that to contend with, the Los Angeles Lakers were relegated to a speed bump in James' season Sunday, as he skipped and dunked his way to a fifth straight 30-point game in the 107-97 win. This time it was 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, his fifth consecutive 30-point game. He once again out-dueled Kobe Bryant, beating him and the Lakers for the fifth time in six tries since coming to Miami to join the Heat.
Bryant had what otherwise would've been a strong game with 28 points and 9 assists on 11-of-19 shooting. Dwyane Wade had one of his best games of the season with 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting. But right now there's James and there's everybody else.
Here is the remarkable update: 49-of-65 shooting over the past five games, netting 30 points or more and shooting better than 60 percent in five consecutive games, and scoring 30 points or more in nine of his past 30 games.
When he was asked about how James has been playing recently the day before this meeting, Bryant attributed James' great scoring and shooting ability to "still having great leaping ability." The key word there being "still," Bryant's ever so slight nod that father time was more on James' side than his.
Someday, indeed, James will be slowed by age, injury and all these games as Bryant has been. But that time is not now.
That has perhaps been what's shown through this season. James' physical gifts appear to be at their peak, elevated when combined with his experience and the intangible benefit of playing without the burden of an empty ring finger. It's leading to some remarkable feats.
Back in December, James went on a 25-mile bike ride for charity the night before he played a game against the Brooklyn Nets. Then he flirted with the triple-double in a blowout win the next days.
A few weeks ago after an off-day practice in Washington, D.C. , James decided he would jog back to the team's hotel through the streets of Georgetown.
Attend any Miami Heat game this season and there's a good chance you'll see James put on a private slam dunk display for fans that are paying attention during warmups with acrobatics that would probably earn him perfect 10s were he ever to take part in the real deal at All-Star Weekend. The handful he threw down prior to Sunday's game were some of the best highlights of the afternoon. It came after his vigorous pregame workout three hours before tipoff.
Sometimes it seems as if James just moves at a different speed than everyone else on the floor, even if it's late and he should be tired. But right now James just seems impenetrable.
"I think he's at the stage of his career in which he'll value each year and take the significance to his training and take the significance to focus for each game," Bryant said. "I think it's taken his game to another level. It's tough."
Steve Nash was more succinct: "He's playing at a level rarely seen."
On the play that pretty much defined the game, Heat guard Norris Cole threw an alley-oop backward to James on a fast break in the fourth quarter. James soared so high that Nash did his best to just get out of the way.
It was the most impressive of the Heat's 19 fast-break points in the game, a figure that broke the Lakers' backs in a game in which they competed hard and shot 50 percent but couldn't match the Heat's athleticism.
"[Cole] threw it to the moon," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
"And I went and got it," James said.
There have been a few times this season where James has looked a little rundown. Playing so much in the post against bigger players has sometimes taken a toll. After a particularly rough night in Utah last month when he banged with Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors all night, he needed a full-body postgame ice bath. The hints that 10 season in the NBA, more than 800 regular-season and playoff games, three Olympics and sometimes being asked to play five different positions adds up.
When the postseason arrives and the real pressure returns, there's an entirely different level of stress that shows on every player, including James. Or as he's said in the past: "Playoff sweat is different than regular-season sweat."
At least the rest of the league better hope so. Because right now, James appears to feel no pain.
"Winning does a lot," James said. "I love to compete, I love to go against the best, I love to get out there with my teammates. And we're enjoying the way we're playing right now. I said before last season I was going to get back to playing the game and having fun. Ever since it has been ongoing."
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Follow him @WindhorstESPN
2. Around the Association
Most valuable player: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were their usual great selves, but Thabo Sefolosha was the key to this victory. He nailed three corner 3-pointers in the first quarter that bumped OKC to a big early lead. Over the course of the game, OKC was a +38 with Sefolosha on the floor.
That was in the nick of time: Sefolosha hit one of his corner 3-pointers at the buzzer of the first quarter. That shot was demoralizing for Phoenix. Westbrook added to the Suns' misery by making a 30-foot 3-pointer at the end of the second quarter. That shot effectively broke any resistance left from Phoenix.
Least valuable player: It's unjust to single out any one Sun for horrible play, since it was truly a team effort in losing this game. However, Michael Beasley had one sequence in the second quarter whem he missed three shots in one offensive trip down the court. Sadly, each shot was worse than the one before it.
MVP: I'm having trouble coming up with creative ways to explain how good Tony Parker is playing. He finished fifth in MVP voting last season and is playing better than I've ever seen him. He had 29 points and 11 assists vs. Brooklyn.
X factor: The Nets shot 5 of 10 from the 3-point line in the first half as they took a six- point lead into the locker room. In the second half, San Antonio held Brooklyn to 1-of-9 shooting from the perimeter as they outscored the Nets 60-29.
LVP: Milk carton: Gerald Wallace. Crash was a no-show against the Spurs, with just five points and three boards in 32 minutes to tie a team-worst plus/minus with -25. Besides the stats, the energy and work rate felt missing as well.
MVP: Chris Paul guided the Clippers home, but Grant Hill stopped the Melo tide. Carmelo Anthony had 38 points through three quarters. Once the 40-year-old was assigned the task? Four points for the entire fourth quarter.
X factor: The Clippers' bench showing up in the Garden. Back with the second unit, Eric Bledsoe showed why their reserves were so feared earlier in the season. Fourty-eight points for Los Angeles' bench compared to 13 for New York's says it all.
That was a relief: After losing eight of their past 11 and getting thumped by Miami, the Clippers resembled a complete team again. It's only one win over a solid Knicks squad, but Los Angeles has slowed the waves of anxiety.
MVP: Isaiah Thomas took over in the fourth, knocking down critical threes in Houston's face and hitting clutch free throws. The 60th pick in the 2011 draft recorded 23 points, 6 assists and a perfect 13 of 13 from the stripe. When push came to shove, he shoved harder.
LVP: Chandler Parsons has been doing a little of everything for Houston lately, but he couldn't put it together in Sacramento. Five points and no threes is a disappointing line for a player who's established a higher bar for himself.
X factor: Fouls. DeMarcus Cousins, Jeremy Lin and Tyreke Evans all had to sit early with fouls, and Lin missed the last half of the fourth quarter due to picking up his sixth. Bench players stepped up with some starters out.
MVP: Tayshaun Prince. On a night when Memphis showed off its balance with four players in double figures, Prince put up 18 points on 100 percent shooting from the field (8-for-8). He'll fit in just fine.
X factor: Injuries kept Andrei Kirilenko and J.J. Barea out of this one, meaning that an already offensively challenged Wolves squad had to face a Memphis team that's second in the league in defensive efficiency.
Defining moment: With 4:35 left in the second quarter, the game was tied at 32-32. The Grizzlies proceeded to rip off a run over the next nine-plus minutes that pushed the score to 64-43. The Wolves never genuinely threatened again.
MVP: J.J. Redick overcame a shoulder injury scare late in the second quarter and powered the Magic's offense from end to end, finishing with 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting and five assists.
X factor: Second-chance points and offensive rebounding. The two teams pulled down the same number of defensive rebounds (33), but Orlando dominated the offensive glass, outrebounding Portland 17-5. They won the second-chance points battle 15-6.
LVP: Damian Lillard had possibly his worst game as a pro. He dished out 12 assists, but couldn't buy a bucket all night, shooting 1-for-16 from the field and missing all eight of his 3-point attempts.
MVP: I could be cute and pick Dwyane Wade or Shane Battier. They were good, too. But LeBron James had 32-7-4 on just 18 shots, and complete control of the court to boot. He owned this game.
X factor: Los Angeles has been a mediocre 3-point shooting team all season, but against a lazy Miami perimeter defense, it went 7-for-12. That helped keep them in the game amidst Miami's dominance of the glass and 55 percent shooting.
Defining moment: With four minutes to go, L.A. was down five. It looked like they had a shot. Thirty seconds later, LeBron delivered a vicious transition smash that put Miami up nine and left the game all but over.
3. Sunday's Best
Paul Pierce, Celtics:
The Celtic with the longest tenure went long. Pierce played 54 minutes en route to 27 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists in a 118-114 triple-overtime win over the Nuggets. His 3-pointer at the end of the second OT kept Boston alive.
4. Monday's Worst
The All-Star forward, averaging 17.8 ppg, was held to five points on 1-of-10 shooting in an overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets. It was his first game of the season without an assist. He fouled out with 1:03 left in the fourth.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
8. Rising Ambition
9. Stat Check
The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Chicago Bulls 103-89 despite being outrebounded, 49-26. Only one other team in the past 35 seasons has won by at least 14 points in a game in which it was minus-23 or worse on the boards. The Vancouver Grizzlies posted a 92-78 win over the Denver Nuggets in a game in which Denver outrebounded Vancouver 59-34, on April 19, 1996.
The Spurs won despite missing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. San Antonio lost its first seven games in which none of its Big 3 played from 2002-03 (when Ginobili joined the team) through last April 9. But the Spurs have now won three of their past four such contests.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around The Association
Most valuable player: Nene Hilario threw his weight against Samual Dalmebert and anyone else Milwaukee tried to throw back. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu'd the Bucks with 21 points (10-for-13 FGs) and 13 rebounds. With John Wall able to push the ball and get defenses moving off the dribble, Hilario, on nights like this, provides a perfect pairing with his ability to run a half-court offense.
Defining moment: Third-year big man Kevin Seraphin started to get lost on defense and in his own jump shot early in the fourth. Milwaukee had cut a nine-point deficit to three in about 90 seconds. Randy Wittman wasted no time getting Hilario back on the court. He immediately provided a couple free throws, several rebounds, and a jumper for the game-deciding push.
X factor: With Wall and Hilario as Washington's obvious top dogs, Bradley Beal has really elevated to third pup status, with the potential to one day be the Wizards' primary star. The rookie scored a career-high 28 points on 17 shots and finished plus-27 in 36 minutes off the bench.
MVP: Luke Ridnour is the only Timberwolve to play in all 49 games so far and this one showcased his grit and steady hand. He scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth and kept the Cavs at arm's length.
Defining moment: With less than two minutes to go, the Cavs had cut the Wolves' lead to three. Ridnour's icy veins took over and he drilled his only 3-pointer to push the lead to 95-89. The Cavs never got closer than six again.
X factor: The shooting. For once, the Wolves knocked down their 3-pointers, shooting 57.1 percent from distance, while the Cavs struggled from the arc and the stripe, hitting 29.4 percent and 63.6 percent, respectively.