- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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Asked before the Heat's 104-101 victory how James might become an even better player coming off his first NBA championship, Popovich said the three-time league MVP appears to be growing mentally stronger and seems much more effective at tuning out speculation and criticism.
"He's so good already," Popovich said. "We all know what his skills are. He's a great passer, he can rebound, he can defend. But I think, if anything, he is maturing mentally in the sense that he is enjoying playing the game. He doesn't listen to talking heads (media critics) anymore -- or a lot less than when he first came in the league."
When informed of those comments after the game, James told ESPN.com that Popovich's assessment was on point.
"I appreciate that," James said as he left AmericanAirlines Arena. "Pop knows what he's talking about. That's why he's one of the best to ever coach this game."
Now James sets out to accomplish something Popovich's four title-winning teams didn't do: repeat as champions.
Popovich believes breaking through to win a ring will free James to play with less pressure and more confidence as the Heat prepare to defend their title this season. That preparation continued Saturday with James receiving a rare day off after playing in Miami's first four preseason games.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said James had been dealing with "general soreness" the past few days. But James is expected back on the court when Miami resumes practice Monday going into its final week of work before the Oct. 30 regular-season and home opener against the Boston Celtics.
James came into training camp expecting to sit out a couple of the Heat's eight preseason games. He had little time to rest during a calendar year that has seen James lead the Heat in the NBA Finals over Oklahoma City and then guide Team USA to the gold medal at the Olympics in London.
The Heat also have used this week to regain their rhythm and recover from last week's seven-day trip to China, where they played two games against the Los Angeles Clippers. James also played 27 minutes and finished with 13 points, eight assists, four rebounds and four steals in Thursday's home preseason victory against the Detroit Pistons.
"It has been a pretty hectic week," Spoelstra said. "He has logged some time this preseason, mainly practice time. I just want to make sure he's fresh for next week. Next week is an important week."
The Heat wrap up their preseason schedule with three games over a span of four days, starting with Tuesday's visit to play the Charlotte Bobcats in Raleigh, N.C. That back-to-back set continues Wednesday in Kansas City against the Washington Wizards before the Heat return home to face the New Orleans Hornets.
On Saturday against the Spurs, the Heat's supporting cast continued to develop chemistry in James' absence.
Dwyane Wade, rounding into form after offseason knee surgery, played his fourth consecutive game and had 13 points with five assists in 26 minutes, his longest stretch of play in the preseason. Mike Miller and Rashard Lewis each scored in double figures off the bench and combined to shoot 7 of 11 from 3-point range. Ray Allen started at small forward as James watched from the bench wearing his headband and Heat team warmups.
Popovich wasn't alone in his evaluation of the Heat's chances to contend for a title again, especially if James continues to get even better with his game and mentality.
The Spurs won titles in 1999, 2003, '05 and '07, and discovered how difficult it is to win two in a row.
"We were pretty close a couple of times, but it just didn't happen," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "I wish it could have been back-to-back-to-back-to-back. But winning three in five years is equally as hard. Miami's definitely got enough talent to put it together here two years in a row."
Ginobili said James' cast grew even better this season after adding Allen to a stable of shooters that already included Miller and Shane Battier.
"They have what they need," Ginobili said. "Definitely."
But San Antonio still figures to be among the teams out west capable of disrupting the Heat's hopes of repeating. A combination of free agency departures, injuries and stylistically difficult matchups in the playoffs were all factors in the Spurs' struggles to win consecutive titles.
"Then there was the Lakers, the Lakers, Kobe and Shaq," Tony Parker said Saturday. "It's hard to do it back-to-back. It's going to be the same thing for (Miami). They're going to go through the same process we went through. Every one you win, it becomes harder and harder. You have to make sure you don't skip steps. Do all the stuff that made you successful the first time, but even more that next year."
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