Just over a year ago, with the Miami Heat re-establishing its winning ways with a decisive victory over New Orleans in the wake of Chicago extinguishing its 27-game winning streak, LeBron James took a vacation of sorts. He still traveled with the team and played well in four of its remaining ten games, but he was smartly rested in anticipation of a playoff run that would last for a full two months, and 23 games, including two victorious game sevens.
The 2012-13 Miami Heat squad was safely ahead of the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the East. This season? They’ve played behind the Pacers since the second game of the 2013-14 campaign, one that saw the defending champs fall on the road to the Philadelphia 76ers. Those two teams are tied atop the East, now, at least when you ignore that whole “winning percentage” aspect of things. And to hear James tell it, there’s no possible way he’s going to give the last two weeks of this season the 2013-approach, what with a top overall seed in the East at stake.
"I have no choice," James said. "I don't plan on sitting out any of these (eight) games unless something happens. I'm going to be in the lineup."
James said he would "probably not" sit out even if some of his teammates weren't out with minor ailments. Guards Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen, and center Greg Oden remained sidelined with their injuries for Wednesday's game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
"It's never been part of my DNA," said James, who has missed just three games this season. "If I feel I can get something, I've got to be out there for my teammates. It's my obligation to be out there for them. I'm dealing with a few things but for me to sit out, I have to be dealing with a lot more."
This is the part of the routine where you stand back in appreciation for what LeBron James has worked through since becoming a member of the Miami Heat.
Yes, “The Decision” was the absolute height of absurdity, a shallow performance orchestrated by a crew with no tact, poise, or reason, something that James should still be ashamed of even if he retires with a half-dozen Miami Heat championship titles to his name. Since then, though, he’s been a part of three teams that made it to the NBA Finals, he’s won twice, he’s earned a gold medal, and he’s preparing for yet another two month run to defend the Heat’s championship. And if Miami falls to Indiana, which is a significant possibility, this will still have the Heat playing into June yet again, with James working some hundred or so games once the playoffs and exhibition season are counted.
The one exception to that? The 2011-12 lockout year, when 66 games were crammed into a spot where 50 games usually go, followed by a two month championship run.
Consider the fact that the closest comparable run we can think of, Michael Jordan’s three-title, one defeat, one gold medal-winning dash from 1989 through 1993, ended with an exhausted Jordan retiring from the game. And Michael only played one game seven during that entire stretch, losing to the Pistons in 1990, while James has worked through three. “Three” and counting, we should point out, because James’ 2013-14 work isn’t over.
By his own lofty standards, James’ work has taken a slight dip this season. His assist and rebound percentages are down, his turnovers have popped up a bit, he’s taking slightly fewer shots in the paint and more from long range, though his per game and per minute scoring remains the same. The dude is still shooting nearly 57 percent from the field, though, and nobody watching LeBron James in 2013-14 would claim to see fatigue setting in as winter melts into spring.
Of course, nobody should feel sorry for the guy, either. He’s paid handsomely to work these hundred-plus games from October until June, and it was James himself that smartly orchestrated the move to Miami to pair himself with what was then the NBA’s best shooting guard in Dwyane Wade, and the NBA’s best power forward in Chris Bosh. The Heat have done well to recruit role players on the cheap in the years since “The Decision,” but the top-heavy feature of three nearly maxed-out stars often leaves the Heat rotation starving for depth, and James’ body has paid the price.
Indiana’s hot start and eventual (some would say “inevitable”) swoon has created a chance for the Heat to once again climb atop the Eastern Conference, something they failed to do in LeBron’s first two seasons in Miami. The chance to play a potential game seven at home against Indiana, away from a Bankers Life Fieldhouse that the Heat has lost six of their last seven games in, is in place. LeBron going all out over these last eight games won’t push him into the MVP-voting lead, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has done just about all he should to claim that award, but it could go a long way toward ensuring that those two meet in the Finals once again.
By anyone’s standards but his own, LeBron James has had an MVP-level season. And with a potential ten weeks left in his 2013-14 run, the hard part is just beginning.
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