LOS ANGELES – Regardless of how LeBron James downplayed the Miami Heat's victory against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night, his actions on the court were more revealing than his postgame comments.
His lengthy mean mugging of the Lakers' crowd at Staples Center after an "and-one" play, his nifty pass from the ground that led to a Ray Allen 3-pointer and his decision to guard Kobe Bryant, who got hot in the fourth quarter, spoke volumes. This wasn't just another game for James, who finished with a season-high 39 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals in a 99-90 Heat victory on national TV.
"He acts nonchalant like it's just another game. No. You can tell," said the Lakers' Antawn Jamison, a former teammate of James' in Cleveland. "He has the extra bounce and stuff like that. He knew what was going on tonight."
Dwyane Wade spent most of the game guarding Bryant with the aid of double-teams. But after the contest was tied, 83-83, with 5:27 left, James took on Bryant, without permission from coach Erik Spoelstra or Wade.
"I don't need to ask," James said about the switch. "I just tell him I got him. Or I don't even have to tell him. I just match up and guard him and we match up from there."
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Bryant's only basket the rest of the game was a 3-pointer with 2:33 remaining that tied it at 90. He finished with 22 points.
With the Heat up 94-90, James took the ball out of the perimeter, motioned for his team to calm down and ended any hopes of a Lakers comeback by nailing a pretty 6-foot, pull-up jumper with 49 seconds left. The Lakers immediately called timeout while their fans said good night by immediately taking off to the exits.
"When he has his mind set to do whatever he got his mind set to do, you can't stop him," Jamison said. "He makes the game so much easier. He knows how to put the pressure on the defense as well. During that one stretch in the third quarter going into the fourth, he took over the game and made it look easy."
James scored 11 points in the third quarter to help Miami build a 73-65 lead.
"He's one of the best we've ever seen," Bryant said about James. "Metta [World Peace] was up for the challenge. But LeBron made some tough shots."
It was a big game for the Lakers, too. They entered Thursday on a modest two-game winning streak – when you're more than a couple of games under .500, you take what you can get – and had hopes of finally meeting championship expectations. "The Lakers have pulled off crazier stuff than this," Bryant said in regards to turning around the season.
The Heat, playing the final game of a six-game trip and the second of back-to-back contests, seemed a step ahead of the Lakers, even before tip-off. They were on the court long before the Lakers slowly walked out there and gave them respectful fist pounds.
James scored Miami's first two baskets with an alley-oop dunk and an emphatic high-rising slam. He had 18 points in the first half on 9-of-13 shooting from the field. Miami needed every bit of it since it trailed 45-44 at halftime.
Bryant was Arctic through three quarters after missing 13 of 16 field-goal attempts, including four of five 3-pointers, and turning the ball over six times, largely against double-teams. He warmed up in the fourth quarter by scoring 10 quick points to give the Lakers an 83-81 lead with 6:33 remaining.
James wasn't surprised.
"This man has 30,000 points plus in his career," James said. "You can't stop him from scoring. You got to make it a little tougher, contest his shots. Keep him off the free-throw line. But he's going to get his points."
After that, James made it tougher on Bryant.
Those close to James say he's very familiar with his statistics at all times. He admitted he knew when he was a point away from reaching his 20,000-point milestone in the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. And as the Lakers game neared an end, he was two points shy of tying a season-high of 38 points against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 12. With the game well in hand, James could have just run the clock out en route to the victory. Instead, he shot to the basket from the wing like Usain Bolt, slammed it hard like he did early in the first quarter and drew the foul with 5.8 seconds left. Free throw made. Season-high in points reached.
Bryant is a future Hall of Famer who will end his career as one of the greatest ever. He doesn't give compliments easily. On Thursday, he didn't spare the praise for James.
"Incredible performance," Bryant said. "He does that consistently though." Bryant used the word "phenomenal" to describe what James called just another game.
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