Originally Published: February 18, 2014

1. LeBron James' Rushmore Tour Shakes Dallas

By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- As LeBron James walked off the court and toward the visitors' tunnel in the wake of another 2014 masterpiece performance, a throng of fans were tugging at his jersey, begging for his game-worn gear and doing just about everything imaginable to get his attention.

Then, just as James stepped off the hardwood court, one admirer reached out and stopped the Miami Heat superstar in a way the Dallas Mavericks only wish they could Tuesday night.

LeBron James
AP Photo/LM OteroLeBron James couldn't be slowed by Shawn Marion en route to 42 points.

That fan was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

James, an avid Cowboys fan, has been one of Romo's biggest defenders in the face of relentless scrutiny and massive criticism over the years for failing to lead Dallas to the Super Bowl. Romo is one of the few professional athletes on the face of the earth who can empathize with what James endured in the NBA over his first seven seasons before he arrived in Miami in 2010 and won the last two championships.

Long after James obliterated the Mavericks with a season-high 42 points in Miami's 117-106 victory, he declined to tell reporters the details of his brief conversation and embrace with Romo. But approached earlier by ESPN.com immediately after he spoke with James, Romo didn't hesitate to share his message.

"Hey, I just told him, 'You go get [championship] number three for y'all, and I'll go get number one for us," Romo said. "He's an unbelievable player, and I just enjoy watching him."

Evidently, so did many of the capacity crowd of 20,461 at American Airlines Center. One would hardly know that this was the same building where the James and the Heat were repeatedly humbled three seasons ago when they ultimately lost to Dallas in six games during the 2011 Finals.

But so much has changed for James and the Heat since then, and they hope to use Tuesday's victory coming off the All-Star break to reignite their stretch-run push toward a third consecutive title. James insisted before and after the game that he was physically tired and needed to search for energy.

Then the lights came on, the game started and James essentially picked up where he left off before the break when he led the Heat to victories on consecutive nights in Phoenix and Golden State. The Heat are now 4-1 on an extended road trip wrapped around All-Star Weekend in New Orleans that wraps up Thursday in Oklahoma City for a highly-anticipated showdown with Kevin Durant and the Thunder.

Just call it the Mount Rushmore Tour.

Along the way, James has drawn as much attention and criticism for what he's either done or said off the court as he has for the recent spike in his production on the court. Before Tuesday's game against Dallas, James was still dealing with reactions from current and former players who took issue with some of his current selections of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as his Rushmore Four greatest players to ever play the game.

In that same interview with NBA TV that finally aired Monday after snippets were released over the weekend, James also suggested he'd ultimately deserve a consensus spot on that mountain.

Mavericks forward Shawn Marion was the latest critic to get himself caught up in the media-instigated crosshairs. Marion, who was James' defensive nemesis in the 2011 Finals, told Dallas reporters during Tuesday morning's team shootaround that "as of now" he doesn't believe James has cemented a spot among a legendary Rushmore Four. Marion also said James still has plenty of time to get there.

By the time Marion's comments made it to James hours later in the Heat's locker room before the game, they were presented by a Dallas-area reporter as if Marion straight dissed him. James was asked to respond to Marion saying he doesn't have him on his Rushmore.

James was already in a serious mood before the game, in part, to send a message to his teammates that the break was over and that Miami was still in the midst of a business trip. Having dealt with Bill Russell's response a day earlier to TNT for being left off James' list, the Marion question only sent James deeper into a more dismissive mood.

"It doesn't matter what Shawn Marion says or what anybody says," James said. "It's about the way I play basketball. I don't need bulletin board material. My bulletin board material is the name on the back of my jersey and the name on the front of my jersey."

The Mavericks grew tired of watching that jersey come and go throughout the game. James made 16 of 23 shots from the field, was 6-of-8 from the free throw line and 4-of-8 from the 3-point line. He added nine rebounds, six assists and two steals in 38 minutes.

James engineered a Heat offense that shot 57.1 percent, generated 29 assists and scored 33 points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Dallas despite being outrebounded by 22 on the glass. James has now scored at least 30 points in 12 games since the start of the New Year, with the more aggressive approach coming as teammate Dwyane Wade continues to work through nagging injuries.

Wade had 13 points and seven assists but took just seven shots Tuesday. The Heat also got 22 points from Chris Bosh, 10 points and nine assists from Mario Chalmers and 18 points from Chris Andersen.

"Throughout the course of the game, he made a lot of two-way, impactful plays -- setting guys for easy baskets, scoring himself when he needed to," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He did it on both ends."

And he's done it better against Dallas than any other team this season.

James has scored a total of 79 points in two wins against Dallas.

The motivation against the Mavericks comes from the struggles he endured when Marion and Dirk Nowitzki stormed back from a 2-1 Finals deficit to knock off the Heat in 2011. James seemed in a daze throughout the final games of the series and lacked the aggressiveness he's played with since then.

"This team has been a reason why I am the player I am right now, because they beat us," James said. "When they beat us, I went into a place I hadn't been before in a long time. I went back to the fundamentals of the game. I went back to breaking down every aspect of my game to get better, because I didn't perform at the level I could have or should have during those Finals."

That level of soul searching and retooling eventually led to James down a path to redemption.

Which brings it all back to the Romo discussion. James was asked before the game what advice he would give the polarizing quarterback in his quest to experience a championship breakthrough.

A few days ago in New Orleans, James sidestepped questions about Romo out of concern of having his comments widely debated and possibly taken out of context. But in Dallas on Tuesday, James bit.

"Just don't care [about] what everybody thinks," James said of the approach Romo should take. "If you work on your craft and, at the end of the day you went out there and gave it all you have, you laid it out on the line for you and your teammates, then you can sleep comfortable at nights."

James said he had to learn to stop paying too much attention to the debate shows and sports talk radio that give platforms to "everyone who knows what to do but they never put on a uniform."

Dallas had been a place where James absorbed plenty of blows.

Now he's delivering them, all while dishing advice -- from Rushmore to Romo.

Dimes past: Jan. 23 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Feb. 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 16

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