Everyone should have seen this eruption coming.
For more than three months, LeBron James had seemed content to largely lay low, let others shine, bide his time, aim for efficiency over explosion, all with the spring in mind.
He is no longer content. Something has set him off. Actually, that’s not true.
Everything has set him off.
That was apparent again—and perhaps most clearly—Tuesday, when he scored a season-high 42 points on 16-for-23 shooting, including a dozen in the final 7:47, when he returned from a brief rest with the Heat trailing by three. During that last stint, Miami rolled to a 117-106 victory over the Mavericks.
And while it’s natural to focus on what he’s doing, with 115 points, 31 rebounds, 18 assists and 59.1 percent shooting his past three games, it’s tempting to ponder the why.
Tempting and time-consuming, because there are too many causes to count.
Let’s start with the one he first cited after last Tuesday’s win in Phoenix and reiterated in Dallas, that he’s feeling better physically than he has all season, even if he’s absolutely exhausted, with Tuesday marking his 15th straight day away from Miami—five games and a busy All-Star weekend. “I’m still tired, but I’m on the court,” James said. “I mean, I’m on the court and I’ve got to try to make things happen. I got some great rest as far as sleeping while I was here. I’m still tired. But it feels good to be out on the floor.”
So health has been instrumental, as has the natural rhythm of the calendar—James can see the end of the regular season coming round the corner, making preservation less paramount.
But there’s more. Clearly there’s more. He’s had an edge about him lately, one that’s been sharpened by the slights and slings coming his way. The early crowning of Kevin Durant as MVP. The constant nagging to enter the slam dunk contest. The “out of context” (his words) overreaction to his Mount Rushmore comments, not just from the public and press, but even from legends like Bill Russell.
James’ irritation with the incessant picking and probing was unmistakable during his pregame press gathering, and not only when he was speaking about himself. Asked to offer advice for Tony Romo, the Cowboys quarterback who was in attendance at American Airlines Center, James spit this:
“Just don’t care what everybody thinks. If you work on your craft and at the end of the day you went out there and gave it all you have, and you laid it out on the line for you and your teammates, then you can sleep comfortable at night. Don’t watch ESPN, don’t watch these ‘everyone knows what to do but they never put on a uniform’ (guys). Everyone tries to tell you what to do. It’s not about that. Tony is one of the great quarterbacks we have in our game. It’s because of his work ethic. No one woke him up in the morning and told him to go to practice. No one told him to go out and practice with his receivers. We all make mistakes, but at the end of the day, if you work on your game then you can live with that.”
James has worked on his game with fervor over the past three years, and in doing so, has convinced even some of his harshest critics to start calling him a champion, rather than a choker. But there will always be those 2011 NBA Finals memories when he faces the Mavericks, those memories of Game 4 in this building (when he shot 3 of 11), followed by a hollow triple-double in Game 5. And so, yes, he acknowledged that those memories played a role in Tuesday’s eruption, too.
“This team has been a reason why I am the player I am today,” James said. “Because they beat us. And when they beat us, I went to a place I haven’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, I should have, during those Finals…. The Mavericks are probably the reason I am who I am today.”
Who he is—well, that’s barely resembles who he was on those two nights in 2011.
He was passive then, so often sighing, backing the ball out at the sight of little J.J. Barea, shrinking at the sound of Shawn Marion’s taunts. Tuesday, he was scowling and steamrolling, like when he broke down Marion with a hard bounce and a shoulder shift, before slamming it down. Tuesday, he was shaking off “Mount Rushmore!” chants by sinking a free throw.
He scored in every which way for the first three quarters, tallying 30 points on 17 shots, but it still wasn’t sufficient to give the Heat a lead entering the fourth. After he sat for more than four game minutes— watching the Heat get bludgeoned on the boards—he ripped off his warmup and ripped the victory from the hosts.
“When I came back into the game, I was able to get a steal and make a three,” James said. “And then their bench was talking to me a little bit, telling me I couldn’t shoot the ball. So I told them the next time I get it, I’m shooting it again. And I made another one. And obviously the last one was a heat check, I shot it from almost my bench.”
He nearly broke the backboard with that one, but got closer on the Heat’s next possession, barreling through the Dallas defense for a dunk, then skipping back to the bench.
After scowling and staring all night, that was a different sort of celebration.
“I didn’t even know what I was doing, honestly,” James said. “My favorite (celebration) of the night was the Bird. I flapped my wings when (Chris Andersen) hit that three by that bench.”
Yes, he did.
And then, when it was over, this season-best performance, he lingered on the court, showing his appreciation for the hundreds of Heat fans by tapping his heart and his lips and pointing in their direction.
He’s granted them shelter from his eruption.
Everyone else better steer clear.