MIAMI – LeBron James surprised his teammates by shaving off his thick beard, and that wasn't the only thing he apparently got rid of. James also says the pressure that burdened him during the end of last season's playoffs is gone.
"It's just a new season. I went back to my young boy look, I guess," James said with a laugh.
It's just a new season that suddenly looks even more promising. Derrick Rose's devastating knee injury – which abruptly ended the reigning MVP's playoffs – has given James a much clearer path to his first NBA title. And if the Heat's 100-67 Game 1 victory over the New York Knicks was any indication, James seems more motivated than ever to secure that elusive championship ring.
James scored 32 points in just three quarters as the Heat demolished the Knicks in the opener of their first-round series. After leading the Heat to the Eastern Conference's second-best record in a season that could reward him with his third MVP trophy, James sounds determined to bury the painful memories of a year ago when his listless play in the NBA Finals again raised questions about his ability to thrive under pressure.
"I'm a different player this year, a different person this year," James said. "I waited for this moment to get back to the postseason. I prepared myself all season as well as the offseason to get back to this point. I'm excited about it."
James has said the attention – and criticism – that came from joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh last season was overwhelming. "I've gotten away from the 'hate' stuff," he told Yahoo! Sports during this year's All-Star break. "I played with that last year and it wasn't me."
James is much more familiar with his teammates and coach, and it showed on Saturday. The Heat attacked the Knicks from the game's start and never let up. James scored 12 points in the opening quarter, half of which came on free throws after he drew fouls on Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith.
"He's on a mission," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.
One by one, the biggest threats to James' title pursuit have fallen. Dwight Howard didn't even make it to the playoffs, shutting down his season to have back surgery. Ray Allen's ankle problems could damage the Boston Celtics' hopes. Then, just as the Heat were taking the court in Miami on Saturday, Rose went down. The Bulls landed the NBA's top overall playoff seed while often playing without Rose this season, but no one's pretending they're better than the Heat with him sidelined for good.
James and the rest of the Heat were disappointed to hear of Rose's injury – Wade said a prayer for him – but they also aren't focusing on the impact of his loss.
"I'll worry about the Knicks," James said. "It's unfortunate that injuries happened for him and that team. But I'm worried about the Knicks. I'm not worried about the Bulls."
James took his own hit from the Knicks, getting knocked down by a screen from Tyson Chandler as he backpedaled. His neck snapped back from the impact and he jogged around the court in pain for a couple moments, but stayed in the game.
"I played football, so I've been hit harder than that," James said.
By the start of the fourth quarter, James was resting comfortably on Miami's bench. He made 10 of 14 shots for his highest field-goal percentage (.714) ever in a playoff game.
"He was spectacular," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "His play spoke for itself. On both ends of the court it seemed as if he had his hands on every single play in some form or another, either a deflection, a steal, a rebound, a score, getting into the paint and drawing a foul."
James still needs 15 more victories in these playoffs to land his first NBA title. With his day's work done, he walked out of the arena wearing a lavender sport coat and white V-neck shirt, looking as relaxed as ever.
Check back in two months. He'll be feeling even better if he's holding a trophy.
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