LeBron tones down act of NBA's villain

LeBron James and the Heat remain in contention for the East's top playoff seed

Perhaps it pained him, but LeBron James(notes) understood the self-editing of sound bites and tweets could go a long way into sparing these Miami Heat the suffocating barrage of his villainous character. The burden had been big enough, and James had reveled in escalating everything with rips on his old team, his new coach, contraction, and a long list of needless, extracurricular cranks.

Sometimes, his explanations made things worse. Mostly though, the declarations that became ongoing stories weren’t worth his time – never mind the storm they created around his team. Eventually, James will reclaim his voice, but this wasn’t the season it benefitted the greater good of the Heat.

This time, he started to listen. That’s always been the hardest part for him. He listened to Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, who wanted him to respect the coach, the system. He listened to Dwyane Wade(notes), who has struggled with the loss of the ball in late-game moments. For the first time, James has understood: Less can be more with him. This has been a year of lessons and progress for the NBA's two-time MVP. Maybe he hasn't grown up, but he's grown.

He goes back to Cleveland on Tuesday night, and the hysteria’s gone. It will never be just one more game, but it is no longer a national event. As much as this is a testament to the public’s attention span, it speaks to James’ revelation that he could be the sport’s biggest newsmaker without pressing the issue. In a lot of ways, he’s stopped trying to live up to this mythical villain façade the summer created for him. He turned down the volume on the season because there’s no team that could survive that sound.

The drama plays out elsewhere in the Eastern Conference now. The Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic made trades that paralyzed progress. The New York Knicks tried to chase the Heat star formula with Carmelo Anthony(notes) but are failing in the execution. The Chicago Bulls became the overnight favorite in the Eastern Conference, and have a young star, Derrick Rose(notes), who must learn to live with the tearing down of his MVP candidacy as rapidly as he constructed it.

Somehow, the Heat did the unthinkable: They lowered expectations for the playoffs, calmed the hysteria and positioned themselves perfectly for a playoff run. There’s an idea that everything has crystallized for James, Wade and Chris Bosh(notes), but the truth is they’ve largely played out a predictable pattern born of the schedule. They’ve beaten middling and bad teams, and struggled with a lot of the good ones. The streaks bear it out. Boston has issues, and a 3-0 record on the Heat has come to mean nothing for the Celtics.

James has never beaten Boston in the playoffs, but a combination of home court and the uncertain fog the Kendrick Perkins(notes) trade has thrust on the Celtics could change that fact. Eventually, the playoffs will be a mandate on James again, but they won’t start that way. The story will be the fallout of the Perkins trade, the pressure on the presumed MVP, Rose, and, yes, the Miami Heat.

Because of talent and behavior, decisions and a digital world, LeBron James made himself the biggest target in the sport. Sometimes, he loved everything that came with it. Sometimes, he hated it. Yet, that’s been his life since his mid-teens, an odd, consuming normalcy for him. He brought his desire to be the every-day story of the sport to Miami, and yet the rest of the franchise struggled to find its way through that reality. So eventually, LeBron James slowly, surely seemed to give less of himself to the public and more to his teammates. He stopped talking, started listening and his return to Cleveland on Tuesday night will come and go without much intrigue.

LeBron is LeBron and this basketball season will yet be about him, about these Heat. But he let this team and himself breathe again. Just maybe, it’s been the most important thing he’s done there.