1. LeBron James' Rushmore Tour Shakes Dallas
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.
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.
"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.
2. Around the Association
MVP: In his first game back after missing the last seven, Mike Conley started out looking a tad rusty. But he scored 10 points in the final six minutes as the Grizzlies came back after trailing by five with 2:39 to go to steal a victory from the hapless Knicks.
X factor: Mike Miller joined Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Martell Webster, Danny Green, Tony Allen, Marco Belinelli, Leandro Barbosa, Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner, Shane Battier and Jimmer Fredette as the 11th wing player this season to set his season high versus New York, scoring 19 points on 11 shots, including the clutch three that gave Memphis the lead for good.
LVP: The mask that J.R. Smith was forced to don certainly played a factor, but impaired vision doesn't explain his largely atrocious shot selection, subpar defense and the hilariously awful turnover at the rim with the Knicks up 90-89. The airballed three? OK, that's the mask's fault.
MVP: He didn't fill up the box score like usual, but Paul George was still the best player on the floor. He finished with 26 points, three assists and three steals, which were just a small part of his defensive menacing of the Hawks' offense.
X factor: The Hawks did a good job shooting the ball, but they turned it over too often to keep pace with Indiana. Atlanta's 22 turnovers led to 35 points for the Pacers.
LVP: All-Star Paul Millsap, who was 3-for-10 shooting with just seven points. Millsap is now shooting 6-for-31 (19.4 percent) this season against Indiana.
MVP: Kyle Lowry has been the Raptors' MVP all season long. Tonight, the All-Snub poured in 24 points and 10 assists, besting the totals of his counterpart John Wall (22 points and 7 assists). Lowry led the charge for the Raptors in the third quarter and helped them build a 14-point lead going into the final frame.
LVP: Bradley Beal was invisible. Coach Randy Wittman decided to stick Trevor Ariza onto DeMar DeRozan so Beal could conserve his energy on offense, but all Beal could muster was 9 points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field.
X factor: The Raptors' bench outscored the Wizards' second unit by a score of 43-21. Amir Johnson was fantastic in his first game back from injury, pouring in 14 points and 5 rebounds while playing disruptive defense.
MVP: Al Jefferson was unstoppable tonight, nearing a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. He shot 15-for-28 from the field and set the tone for Charlotte's huge offensive night with his scoring and great screens.
LVP: We'll have to start calling them the _etroit Pistons with their lack of 'D' on a nightly basis. The Pistons allowed two 29-point quarters from a below-average offensive team, leaving the lane wide open for basket after basket -- costing them a chance at this win.
X factor: Kemba Walker has quietly been stellar this season, and continued to impress tonight. Tallying 22 points and 6 dimes, Walker was also stingy on the other end, allowing just 7-for-18 shooting from Brandon Jennings and coming away with a steal.
MVP: A 33.9 percent career 3-point shooter, Caron Butler transformed into the sharpshooting Kyle Korver against the Magic. He made seven 3s and finished the game with 21 points off the bench.
Defining moment: With the shot clock winding down, Nate Wolters drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Bucks a 99-97 lead with 29.5 seconds left. Milwaukee would hold on for the rare victory.
X factor: Free throws. That was the difference in this ballgame. The Bucks shot 22-for-30 from the charity stripe, while Orlando only shot 9-for-16. Brandon Knight alone made more free throws (12) than the Magic.
MVP: LeBron James with a ridiculous 42 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Dallas had no answer for the reigning MVP (who does?), who dominated the game from the opening tip.
Defining moment: Up 95-92 after a Vince Carter four-point play, Shawn Marion turned over a defensive rebound. This spurred a 14-0 Miami run, including 10 from LeBron, to put the game out of reach.
X factor: Shooting percentages. Getting outrebounded by 22 isn't much of a problem for Miami as it continued its historic season, hitting 57 percent of its shots. Dallas, on the other hand, couldn't connect enough, hitting just 40 percent from the floor.
3. Tuesday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: Seems like the Mavs are never going to beat the Heat again as long as LeBron's around. LeBron put on a show, sinking 16 of 23 shots en route to 42 points in the Heat's 117-106 win in Big D.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Rodney Stuckey, Pistons: One day, you're riding high. Next, you're shot down. On Feb. 10, Stuckey dropped 20 in a win over the Spurs. Facing the Bobcats eight days later, he scored two, making just 1 of 11 shots in the 108-96 road loss.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Hey, I just told him, 'You go get [championship] number three for y'all, and I'll go get number one for us."
-- Cowboys QB Tony Romo, on what he said to LeBron James on Tuesday
8. Green Power For Suns
9. Stat Check
Patty Mills came off the bench to score 25 points while contributing five rebounds and five assists in the Spurs' 113-103 road win over the Clippers. Since Gregg Popovich became San Antonio's head coach in 1996, the only other Spurs substitute to record at least 25 points, five rebounds, and five assists in a game is Manu Ginobili, who's done it seven times. The last Spur other than Ginobili to do this was Lloyd "Sweet Pea" Daniels in an overtime loss at Denver on Nov. 7, 1992 (26 points, eight rebounds, six assists).
10. Top 3 Plays
Around the Association
MVP: Tyler Zeller was able to make the most of his minutes, as he set a career high with 15 rebounds, and added 18 points for the Cavs. His six offensive rebounds provided Cleveland with several second-chance opportunities.
That was ... ugly: The Sixers were on an eight-game losing streak heading into Tuesday's game against Cleveland, and looked every bit like it. The Sixers didn't have a single lead once the game reached double digits, and they spent most of the evening trying to dig themselves out of a deep ditch.
LVP: Spencer Hawes. Considering that it could have been Hawes' last game with the 7-6, he certainly didn't make it a very memorable one. The SIxers' defense is non-existent, so they needed some offensive output, and Hawes did not deliver. He was only 1-for-6 from the field for 2 points.
MVP: Patty Mills. With Tony Parker out for the time being, the Spurs will lean on Mills for a perimeter scoring punch. Against the Clippers, Mills posted a standout line of 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting, five rebounds and five assists.
X factor: Chris Paul's rough night. Not far removed from a shoulder injury, Paul struggled from the field, shooting 1-for-10 from the floor for just 11 points in almost 38 minutes against the Spurs.
That was ... finally a win over a contender the Spurs can build on: It's no secret that San Antonio has struggled against the league's top teams this season. For the Spurs to steal a game at Staples against the Clippers without Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, it means a lot.
MVP: It's been a season of resurgence for Gerald Green, and tonight was one of his best games all year. He scored a season-high 36 points, including six 3-pointers. Most importantly, Green came up huge late, sinking key free throws that either tied the game or secured the lead for the Suns.
X factor: Since there can't be two MVPs, Goran Dragic and his 21-point, 14-assist night gets relegated to X factor status. Dragic, as he's been all season, was the engine that drove Phoenix's offense, pushing the ball at any and every opportunity, knifing into the lane and hitting several nasty step-backs.
Defining moment: With 7 seconds left and the Suns down two points, Channing Frye misses a 19-foot jumper. However, Markieff Morris comes in from the left side, snags the offensive board and hoists the ball back up toward the basket. It falls, and the Suns send the game into overtime.