LeBron James coasting no more
After ceding spotlight to Durant, reigning MVP ready to ramp up
NEW YORK -- It's not often it could be said LeBron James is being overlooked, even dating back to his teenage days, but James' past few weeks might, well, be getting a little overlooked.
Perhaps that's a compliment to Kevin Durant, who has dominated the highlights recently. Perhaps that's James' own doing; his catalog of hot streaks is so deep that this one barely ranks.
To illustrate that, his 30-point, 8-rebound, 7-assist, 6-steal night in the Miami Heat's 106-91 win Saturday night might not register among his 10 best games ever at Madison Square Garden. He does have two 50-point, 10-assist games in the building in his career.
Over the past several weeks, James has been steadily ramping up his play. He was bothered by some nagging injuries and, frankly, he was doing some coasting during the early-season doldrums.
Three weeks ago, ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh brought some numbers to James' attention to make this case. His steals and blocks were at career lows, his rebounds were at the lowest level in seven seasons, he was taking the fewest shots per game of his career and, in the most stunning revelation, the Heat were about eight points better per 100 possessions on defense when James wasn't on the floor.
"I'm listening to the numbers," James said after Haberstroh got done with his presentation after a practice in Miami. "Maybe I do have to start ramping it up a little but more."
Over the past 10 games, James has indeed been heading up the ramp. The easiest explanation of it is that midseason has arrived and his normal rhythms tend to have him turn it on at this time. It's possible some of it was motivation the mini-wave of negative publicity his little slump, by his standards, created. And, of course, there was Durant. James has been watching Durant's performance like a dedicated Oklahoma City Thunder fan, and it no doubt tapped his competitive streak.
During this stretch, James is averaging 28.4 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Those are good numbers, but they look a lot like James' career averages of 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. But before this run, before James vowed to ramp things up, his season averages were closer to 25 points, six rebounds and six assists. Perhaps most telling, James is averaging nine free throws per game over this 10-game set, up from six per game during his first 35 games of the season.
What this says is James is getting back to himself -- back to the standard the four-time Most Valuable Player had set -- just as he'd predicted he would when challenged on the topic.
"I'm feeling good, and, hopefully, my body can continue to hold up," James said Saturday night as he was getting treatment for a sore left shoulder, a minor issue he's been dealing with recently and that was aggravated a little by a hard foul from Carmelo Anthony.
"I'm in a good groove right now. Hopefully, my personal groove can help us win some games."
James has been in a bit of a bad mood lately about the Heat's inconsistent play. They were a rather pedestrian 8-6 in January. On Wednesday night against the Thunder, in a game the Heat appeared to be amped up for, Miami was blasted off its own floor.
With two days off before a planned flight to New York, the Heat were expected to take Thursday as an off day, but coach Erik Spoelstra, unhappy with the Thunder game performance, scheduled a noon practice. James arrived several hours ahead of everyone else and got in a 45-minute shooting workout before any of his teammates returned to the arena. You have to get up pretty early to beat Ray Allen into the office.
"I didn't like our performance against OKC," James said. "I took it upon myself to hold myself and the team more accountable."
One practice doesn't make a season, but when the team's best player sets a tone like that, it can send a message. By all accounts, the Heat had two good days of practice and then delivered a strong all-around performance against the Knicks. It was the first time the Heat had won in New York this season. They had beena combined 0-3 against the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets after some generally flat performances.
James' defensive activity was clearly increased Saturday, and his teammates treated the Knicks like a legitimate opponent for a change. They had been 1-4 against New York over the past two regular seasons, and their concern about each of those losses usually was nonexistent.
The Heat have now won four of five games as James' increase in play has translated, though the setback against the Thunder seemed to undo some of that good.
"The way we played tonight is the way we want to play going forward," James said. "We want to try to use this as [a] springboard. It's February. We need to start playing more consistent basketball."
Last February, James might have had the best regular-season month of his career when he averaged 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and shot an otherworldly 64 percent. The Heat nearly swept the month. So when James mentions the calendar, he's doing so with a purpose.
On Saturday, the Heat didn't just get a great game from James but perhaps the best performance of the season from Shane Battier, who had 16 points. Dwyane Wade also had the spring back in his step, moving beautifully on his cranky knees on his way to 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting. That was the way Wade was playing before a setback with his knee last month knocked him out for four games and resulted in some uninspiring play both before he shut it down and after he returned.
"It's the best I've felt," Wade said. "I would love to continue to feel exactly this way."
Things won't always go this swimmingly, but James has been making a statement with his recent play and he's now starting to tug at his teammates to do the same. As of last week, the Heat had all 15 players on their roster healthy, and their excuses for uneven effort and motivation have hit their expiration date.
"We've played some good basketball but we've been inconsistent, and I don't like it," James said. "It's time for us to string together some games."