LeBron James returns with improved game

DALLAS – LeBron James' stat line of 37 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks showed just how remarkable a performance he delivered on Christmas. That the performance came against the Dallas Mavericks – the team that deprived James and the Miami Heat of last season's title – on the day the Mavs raised their 2011 championship banner, made it even more memorable.

James, however, was unmoved by the Heat's dominating 105-94 rout of the Mavs in Sunday's season opener. If last season taught James anything, it's that no one cares how you start the season. It's all about how you finish.

"I got a lot of work to do still," James said matter-of-factly. "I'm just a better player than I was last year."

James is better because of what happened in last season's NBA Finals. From the Heat's meltdown in Game 2 until the final buzzer of the Mavs' first title, James played passively, often choosing to float on the perimeter. After the Heat lost to the Mavs in the Finals, most of the blame was heaped on James. Further, he didn't win over many fans or critics in his final news conference of the series.

"All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today," James said after the Game 6 loss. "They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that."

James replayed the Finals loss over in his head for weeks. He was unusually quiet during the NBA's lockout, largely staying out of the spotlight. Instead, he tried to focus on what went wrong and what he needed to do to improve.

[ Slideshow: Highlights from NBA's opening day ]

"I beat myself up on a lot of stuff," James said. "I didn't talk to nobody. I didn't say nothing to anybody or do anything. I just moped around and let it sink all in until it's time to refocus. … I'm glad I was able to get myself out of it, get back to work."

James did that by working on his midrange jump shot and post moves. He enlisted Hakeem Olajuwon, the best post player in the history of the NBA, to work with him. James also realized that shooting midrange jumpers would benefit him more than settling for 3-point shots. If he wants three-point plays, he can take the ball to the rim.

"I just think he has just done a great job of being a student of the game," teammate Dwyane Wade said. "He's coming back this year more comfortable and more confident."

If James' first game is any indication, his hard work has paid off. He had three offensive rebounds, 19 free-throw attempts, made a sick left-handed hook off the glass following a spin move, earned a three-point play on a post move and knocked down midrange jumpers over his shorter and less athletic defenders. And he didn't attempt a single 3-pointer.

"I can't afford to come back and not be a better player and dwell on what happened," James said. "It was for time for me to get better."

Said Wade: "That's the LeBron James we want to see for 66-plus games. If we do that, we'll be very successful."

[ Also: Kevin Garnett finishes off Celtics first game with a tussle ]

It's the "plus" games Wade mentioned that James will ultimately be judged on. If he focuses on his post game – and the rest of the Heat play up to their talent and experience – James should be in a good position to win his first title.

"I just wasn't myself," James said of last season. "There was a lot going on, on the court and off the court. So, once I was able to figure the things to get better individually on the court and off the court, I was able to focus on my game and get better.

"I'm happy where I am right now. It's the best I've felt in a long time."

That should worry the rest of the NBA.

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