1. LeBron's Best Yet Makes Every Shot Count
MIAMI -- LeBron James' eighth 3-pointer splashed through the net about 30 feet away from where the reigning MVP stood, which was just a few feet in front of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, who watched from his normal courtside spot at halfcourt.
Once the nylon snapped in the air, James turned his head and roared through a plastic mask toward the incredulous AmericanAirlines Arena crowd as he trotted back on defense. James had taken eight 3s at that point and all had gone in. None had even grazed the rim.
The game clock ticked down from 1:19 ... 1:18 ... 1:17 remaining.
In the third quarter.
James had 49 even before the fourth quarter began.
"When that one went in, I knew," James said, "I was in a really, really good groove."
James wasn't done. He opened the fourth quarter with a swooping layup past three helpless Charlotte Bobcats defenders. Fifty-one, his first 50-point game of his career in front of his home crowd. Nine 50-plus in his 11-year career, all previously on the road.
That's when the Bobcats started sending double teams on James before he even crossed halfcourt.
"First time it happened to me probably since high school," James said of the radical coverage.
No matter. Pull-up jumper from 20 feet. Fifty-three. Another layup, this time cutting off the ball to the rim. Fifty-five. Isolation from the top of the key, dribble right, spin past two Bobcats, lay it up off-balance, glass. Fifty-seven. Career-high, franchise record. More. This time, a high pick-and-roll, past one defender, split three more, fading jumper, glass. Fifty-nine.
Double-team off the catch in the left corner, curl past off the dribble to the right, bump into a sliding third defender, over a fourth, whistle. Two free throws: sixty and sixty-one.
"It felt like I had a golf ball, throwing it in the ocean," James said.
All told: A career-high, franchise-record 61 points on 22-of-33 shooting, one shy of Carmelo Anthony's 62 points against Charlotte on Jan. 24. The two players in the shot-clock era with the highest percentage in a 60-point game, Elias Sports Bureau points out, were both big men: Wilt Chamberlain (82.9) and Karl Malone (80.8).
"The amazing part is the efficiency," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "It's comparable to Wilt Chamberlain."
James scored 25 points in the third quarter alone, breaking a personal record for most points in a quarter. Actually, that doesn't do his scoring spree justice. Maybe this will: from ten seconds remaining in the second quarter through the 8:15 mark in the fourth quarter, James single-handedly outscored the Bobcats 32-31.
Best player in the game, having probably the best game of his career.
"It's a surreal feeling," James said. "I don't know when I'll have an opportunity to really understand what I've been able to accomplish [on Monday]."
It was a special night for a once-in-a-lifetime player playing in the midst of a three-peat quest. He not only put up 61 points, but he did it against the gritty Bobcats defense, which entered Monday night as a top-6 defense in the NBA.
At halftime when James had 24 points to his name, Dwyane Wade, who sat out the game to rest, told James: "You better score 40."
James hit 40 by the time he hit the bench in the third quarter.
And how's this for poetry? A University of Miami journalism class picked one game on the Heat's schedule to cover in person this season. Professor Michelle Kaufman just so happened to choose James' 61 for her class.
"We figured there'd be less media," one Hurricane scribe put it.
Indeed, ahead of the Heat's upcoming road trip which begins Tuesday in Houston, several of the local papers gave their primary beat reporter the night off. James, it turns out, did not.
"When you're in the zone, you're really, you're just playing, you're just out doing what needs to be done to win," James said after the game. "You kind of [lose a] sense of what has actually happened."
What actually happened on Monday night -- in the grand scheme of things -- won't make itself clear until probably June when the dust settles and a champion has been crowned. Even now, Monday's significance will be debated for some time, especially in the context of a heated MVP race with the two titans of the sport, Kevin Durant and James, jostling for league supremacy.
If James' 61 hadn't confirmed it already, James isn't ready to give up the MVP race.
"I tell you guys all the time, every time I go out on the floor I want to be the MVP," James said. "I want to be the MVP for this league, for this team and for me, myself and my family. I have set a high standard and I have to live by that."
James' performance comes on the heels of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference where a groundbreaking study by Harvard researchers was presented in front of a crowd peppered by NBA execs. It found the first empirical evidence of the hot hand, refuting decades of research that argued that "feeling it" is nothing but a basketball mirage.
Battier, who is a self-proclaimed numbers guru in his own right, has been a believer all along.
"I just know when you shoot for it, there's something psychological or a religious physical experience to be honest with you," Battier said. "You're just so in-tuned with yourself, you're not thinking about the physical aspect of the mechanics or the fatigue. All you see is the hoop and it's pure and it's a moment that we always talk about, that perfect moment of reaching total unconsciousness."
After the game, James described his play like about being "in the groove" and "in the zone." And how could you argue after a guy hits eight straight 3s without hitting the rim?
"I'm a huge stat guy," Battier said, "but at that moment, throw the stats out. It's about total consciousness and just being in the flow. That's an all-time great right there."
Earlier this season in November, after Rudy Gay scored just 29 points on 37 field goal attempts in a game against Houston, James declared that he could score twice that.
"If you give me 37 shots in a game, I'd put up 60, easy," James said then.
On Monday, he scored 61 points on 33 shots -- against a top-ten defense, no less. Sometimes, it looked like he didn't even break a sweat out there on the court.
And that might be James' greatest accomplishment: James makes history-making look easy.
2. Around the Association
MVP: It was a special night for LeBron James, who reminded everyone with each made basket that the MVP race is far from over. He set a new career high and Heat franchise record with 61 points on 22-of-33 shooting.
X factor: You have to feel for Al Jefferson. He was a magician in the low and high post against the Heat, and his performance (38 points, 19 rebounds) was nothing more than a footnote because of LeBron.
That was ... breathtaking to watch: Layups. Midrange jumpers. Three-pointers. It didn't matter what type of shot it was or where it was on the court. It was going in. LeBron was on a roll from the opening tip.
MVP: Grizzled Grizzlies veteran Tayshaun Prince dropped in 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the win. Not bad for the 34-year-old forward averaging 6.2 points per game with an 8.02 PER.
That was ... the end of a good run: Washington saw its six-game win streak end but games against the Jazz and Bucks should give the Wiz a chance to resume challenging for a Top 4 spot in the East standings.
X factor: Washington newcomers Drew Gooden and Andre Miller didn't light up the night, combining to miss three shots in 15 minutes of action.
MVP: What did Andre Drummond do tonight? Many things. He snagged a career-high 26 rebounds (which also tied Dwight Howard for the most this season), set the Pistons' record for most double-doubles in a season with 43 and added 17 points, two steals and three blocks. He's good.
LVP: The Knicks guards shot a combined 9-of-41, but the five buckets J.R. Smith hit late in the fourth makes even those sickly totals look better than they should have been. And collectively it's not like they played lockdown defense.
X factor: Will Bynum. The backup floor general netted 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the final quarter, routinely beating the Knicks off the dribble and scoring in the paint, as Detroit outscored the Knicks 19-7 in one stretch to take an insurmountable lead.
Co-MVPs: Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter. Ilyasova made 13 of 14 field goal attempts on his way to 31 points. Kanter worked the free throw line to set a career high with 27 points. The Bucks' food promo after home wins is free chili; for this game it should be Turkey chili.
X factor: The Bucks used sharp interior passing to set up high-percentage shots in the third quarter. In the first 15 minutes of the second half, the Bucks made 16 of 22 field goals and grabbed five offensive rebounds.
That was ... a warm moment: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar attended the game and addressed the crowd during a first-quarter timeout. After complimenting the local fans, he said, "I hope everything works out so the Bucks stay here as part of Wisconsin."
MVP: Deron Williams. The Bulls helped the Nets by turning the ball over a ton, but when Brooklyn needed offensive execution in the halfcourt, Williams provided it. He had three and-1 opportunities and led all scorers with 20 points.
X factor: Chicago's turnovers. Brooklyn had 19 steals to tie the high for a team this season, with the Bulls turning it over 28 total times. The Nets scored 30 points off of those takeaways, and Chicago never got into a rhythm as a result.
That was ... unfortunate. At the end of the first quarter, the Nets had Shaun Livingston commit the foul they had to give. It was his second, and he soon found himself in foul trouble. It didn't affect the final score, but there had to have been a better option.
3. Monday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: Imagine the kind of scoreboard damage he could have done hogging the ball. In addition to dishing five assists, LeBron set career highs and Heat records for points in a game (61), points in a quarter (25 in the third quarter) and field goals made in a game (22). He also tied his career high for 3-pointers in a game with eight.
4. Monday's Worst
Raymond Felton, Knicks: He goes 1-for-9 from the field in a 96-85 loss in Detroit. His turnovers-to-points ratio over the last four games? 14:22. The Knicks have now lost seven straight and are in imminent danger of falling behind a brazen tanker, Boston, in the East.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Once he sniffed 60, we knew he was going for it. And the amazing part is the efficiency. Good Lord. Sixty-one on 33 shots, that's Wilt Chamberlain-esque. That's pretty amazing. Incredible performance."
-- Heat forward Shane Battier, on LeBron's career-high scoring night
8. New Scoring Mark
9. Stat Check
LeBron James scored 61 points in Miami's 124-107 victory over the Bobcats on Friday. James became the second player to score 60 or more points in a game this season, joining New York's Carmelo Anthony, who also did it against Charlotte (62 points on January 24).
Only two other teams in NBA history have allowed 60 or more points in a game to two different players in a single season, and in both instances the Knicks were the culprit. New York allowed Elgin Baylor (71 points) and Wilt Chamberlain (67) to score 60 or more points in a game during the 1960-61 season and in the very next season, allowed two 60-point games to Wilt Chamberlain (including his 100-point performance) and another to Jerry West.
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: DeMarcus Cousins only played 28 minutes because of foul trouble, but when he was on the floor, the Pelicans had no answer for him. Cousins used his strength and quickness to go through and around Pelicans defenders, scoring 23 points and snatching 12 rebounds.
LVP: Have we ever seen the Hack-A-Shaq strategy used on a guard? Well, we did tonight as the Kings intentionally fouled Austin Rivers and sent him to the line late in the third after he had badly missed four straight free throws. The irony is that Rivers actually made the two shots, but he was ineffective the rest of the night, going 2-for-9 from the field, 0-for-4 from deep, and 2-for-6 from the line.
Defining moment: Tied at 53-53 with 3:15 left in the third quarter, there was a loose ball under the Kings rim. The Pelicans stood and watched while 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas dove to the floor and secured the ball before passing it to teammate Jason Thompson for an easy layup that gave the Kings the lead and forced Monty Williams to take a timeout.
MVP: Pau Gasol. While Kent Bazemore made some critical, momentum-shifting plays, Gasol was L.A'.s rock. He finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals.
Turning point: Down a point with seven seconds left in regulation, Bazemore inbounded from the sideline and hit a streaking Wes Johnson for the go-ahead, game-winning alley-oop.
X factor: Fast-break points. All game long the Lakers beat the Blazers down the court. Los Angeles outscored Portland 32-9 in transition.
MVP: Only Kevin Love can make a 33-point, 19-rebound, four-assist stat line seem par for the course. When he wasn't burning Kenneth Faried in the post, he was terrifying Denver in the pick-and-roll and opening up space for everyone else to work.
X factor: Despite not playing since Feb. 9, and playing through bruised ribs, Ty Lawson put up 31 points and 11 assists on 11-of-16 shooting, and he spearheaded three separate second-half runs that kept the Nuggets in it until the end.
Defining moment: Just when Minnesota looked to have sealed the game away, Denver made four consecutive 3s in the span of 23 seconds to keep things interesting. The Wolves went nearly perfect from the line, though, and staved off the late comeback.