MIAMI -- Midweek games midway through March don’t usually generate this kind of buzz from the Miami Heat.
But this one is different.
This one is against the Brooklyn Nets, who visit AmericanAirlines Arena on Wednesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) as the only NBA team to beat the Heat at least twice without a loss this season. One sign of how serious Miami is taking this matchup came when LeBron James interrupted a reporter in the process of pointing out the Nets' 2-0 regular-season mark against Miami.
“Well, 3-0 if you count the preseason,” James shot back. “We look forward to playing them.”
Yes, even the two-time defending champions still have certain opponents circled on their calendar as potential measuring sticks that could play out in the postseason. Coming into the season, no team caught the Heat’s attention like the Indiana Pacers, who have targeted the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and maintain a slight lead in the standings over second-place Miami with a month left until the playoffs.
The Chicago Bulls, of course, have been a longtime nemesis for the Heat -- even with their injury issues.
But Brooklyn also generated its share of noise early when first-year coach Jason Kidd told reporters last summer that the Nets “have the horses” with a reloaded roster to contend with the Heat. Then, a combination of injuries, a rift within Kidd’s staff and chemistry issues derailed the Nets and doused much of the enthusiasm that accompanied the offseason arrival of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
But since losing 21 of their first 31 games, the Nets have gone 22-9 to post the best record in the conference since Jan. 1. Perhaps no team in the league more than Miami appreciates the initial growing pains that come with assembling a high-profile roster amid a championship-or-bust scenario.
And the Nets are going through the process with a much older core of Garnett, Pierce and Joe Johnson than the Heat did when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together all in their primes in 2010.
“We know how difficult it is to come together with high expectations,” Bosh said of the Heat, who stumbled to a 9-8 start during the 2010-11 season before ultimately losing to Dallas in the NBA Finals. “You knew it was only a matter of time before they figured it out. They have a very good veteran group. We owe these guys. We haven’t beaten them yet. We need this win on Wednesday.”
The Heat (44-17) hope to use this week’s four-game homestand to rebound from last week’s three-game losing streak that featured James’ most prolonged slump of the season. Miami began the recovery process with Monday’s 99-90 win against the Wizards, a game in which James, Bosh and Wade combined to account for 67 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists. It was only the fifth time this season that James, Wade and Bosh each finished with at least 20 points in the same game.
But defense and rebounding have been far greater concerns for the Heat. Over the past four games, Miami has been outrebounded by an average of 11 boards. Against the Wizards, the Heat overcame a 50-33 disadvantage on the glass by scoring 22 points off 19 turnovers and holding Washington to just two field goals over the final 5:43 of the game.
Spoelstra has challenged to Heat “get back to our identity” by addressing some concerns that have plagued the team in recent weeks. Slow starts and sluggish finishes were also a recent problem. Getting James on the attack and back to the free throw line is also a priority. James hasn’t attempted a free throw for two straight games for the first time since his rookie season.
James said he’s “very surprised” he hasn’t gotten calls to go in his favor despite aggressively driving into the lane the past two games. Spoelstra said he wouldn’t campaign to officials, but that he was confident the results would come if James continued to play his customary game.
“Can we work on things that failed us yesterday and do a better job of it today?” Spoelstra said of the daily approach to correcting some of the issues. “That’s growth. It’s good character to be able to respond like that. Hopefully we can continue.”
The Nets (32-30) also look to extend their recent surge, a push that has been boosted by the trade deadline acquisition of scoring guard Marcus Thornton to help off the bench. Brooklyn has won two in a row and six of its past seven games, a stretch that has coincided with Garnett sitting out the past six games with back spasms. Garnett reportedly didn’t make the trip to Miami for Wednesday’s game, and the Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko is questionable with a sore ankle.
Kidd’s handling of his veterans -- reducing minutes and extending nights off amid nagging injuries -- has been similar to the Heat’s approach, specifically with Wade, this season. Brooklyn is 7-6 this season without Garnett, who is averaging a career-low 21 minutes a game. Pierce is also averaging a career-low 13.2 points, but the Nets have maintained a focus on keeping both healthy for the postseason.
“I can appreciate it,” Wade said of the Nets' long-range outlook. “Everybody’s got a maintenance plan. Ours is the only one talked about. At this point, you’ve got a veteran team you’ve got to do things you need to do. They’ve done a good job resting guys. It’s a big picture for certain teams. We’re one of them, they’re one of them, and the Spurs are one of them. We’re older guys, and it works for us.”
The Nets have steadied themselves after some early turbulence.
But Kidd suggested from the outset that his team might follow the Heat’s blueprint.
“When the Heat were put together, there was talk of going undefeated,” Kidd sarcastically said last July. “They didn’t get off to a great start, but they found a way to win back-to-back championships. We’re not the Miami Heat, but we [also] feel that we can compete at a high level. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us.”
With Brooklyn currently in position to be a potential second-round playoff opponent, the Nets have the Heat’s complete attention heading into the season’s stretch run.
“They should,” James said. “Talent doesn’t always win, but they’re playing great basketball right now.”
MIAMI -- For Dwyane Wade, this was all about timing and progress.
With less than six weeks remaining before the NBA playoffs, it was time to speed up the process of shoring up the newer aspects of his game he’d been experimenting on throughout the season.
And having experienced mixed results the past two times he’s attempted to push through games on consecutive nights, Wade needed to gauge the progress he has made amid the season-long maintenance program designed to treat and preserve his troublesome knees.
Throw in the fact the Miami Heat returned home on a three-game losing streak, the conditions were set for Wade to pursue the kind of answers he sought from himself and his team heading into a challenging four-game homestand that started with Monday’s visit from the Washington Wizards.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwyane Wade gave Miami a strong performance late on the second night of a back-to-back.
“I felt good enough to do it, and I wanted to challenge myself,” Wade said after Miami’s 99-90 victory over Washington. “I knew we had a lot of games this week, but I just decided to do it. I came in and didn’t feel like I couldn’t go out there and do the things I needed to do.”
This wasn’t simply Wade going through the motions a night after he played nearly 40 minutes and scored a game-high 25 points in Sunday afternoon’s overtime loss in Chicago. Instead, this was Wade dominating down the stretch with emotion and devotion.
Wade scored 13 of his 22 points in the decisive fourth quarter to help the Heat pull away from the Wizards after the teams were tied at 73-73 entering the final period. This was two-way Wade, who dished three of his six assists in the fourth and also blocked a shot that initiated the Heat’s closing run.
This wasn’t the level of production the Heat have grown accustomed to getting from Wade on both ends of a back-to-back set this season. The first time Wade tried to play in games on consecutive nights was in November, when he played one of his most complete games of his career in a Nov. 15 home win against Dallas but limped off the court with soreness in the third quarter the next night in Charlotte.
The decision to test his right knee too extensively too soon after an offseason procedure to address multiple bone bruises resulted in a weeklong setback in Wade’s recovery process. It would be another two months before Wade dared to attack another back-to-back.
The outcome was more encouraging in early January. Wade had 20 points, six rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes in a Jan. 4 win in Orlando and came a night later with 14 points, nine rebounds and two steals in 35 minutes on the way to a home win against Toronto.
So based on the every-other-month schedule, perhaps it was time to check again. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra scoffed at the notion that part of the team’s proactive approach with Wade was designed to keep him out of games on consecutive nights this season. But that was clearly the way Miami handled Wade, with the focus exclusively on building Wade’s confidence and health for the playoffs.
A week ago, Spoelstra said the team’s only goal for Wade was to get him playing -- and feeling -- his best in time for the Heat to begin their push for a third consecutive championship.
“People made sweeping assumptions that he won’t play any [games] back-to-back, but that’s never been the case,” Spoelstra said. “When we say everything is day-to-day, that’s what we mean. If he can pass a series of exercises and tests of the routine ... if his legs feel good, why hold back? He’s ready to go and he can play. We anticipated early in the year that as the season went on, he would feel better.”
Spoelstra also said there was no hesitation from Wade or the training staff to allow him to play Monday. But the coach also said there was a moment in the fourth quarter when he thought about taking Wade out as a precaution but decided against it because he was playing so well to close out the game.
Nine other times this season, Wade split back-to-back sets by playing one night and resting the other. Had that trend continued Monday -- as it did a week ago when he sat a Monday win against Charlotte and played in a Tuesday loss at Houston -- there’s a strong change the Heat’s losing streak would have reached four games.
LeBron James bounced back from a weeklong slump by his standards to finish with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting, and Chris Bosh had 22 points on 14 shots. But the offense ran through Wade for much of the second half against the Wizards, largely because he was able to drive and finish at the rim or set up teammates. He was also able to get to the free throw line while James did not attempt a free throw in consecutive games for the first time since his rookie season in 2003.
This was the Heat leaning on Wade on a night they otherwise would have been without him.
“It was great,” James said. “He had the ball in his hands and made the right plays for himself and for his team. He didn’t let us down.”
There were times throughout the season when teammates didn’t know whether Wade would play or sit out until just before they hit the court for pregame warm-ups. It reached a point that Wade started to inform his teammates earlier on game days when his body wasn’t cooperating so that they could better adjust and prepare for him to sit out.
With the playoffs looming, Bosh said he’s confident in Wade’s approach.
“We’re to the point now where the playoffs will come early this year,” Bosh said of the Heat increasing their intensity as they chase Indiana for the No. 1 seed in the East. “I expect him to play. We need to be at full strength.”
Neither Wade nor his team are there quite yet.
Last week’s losing streak exposed some offensive chemistry issues and defensive lapses the Heat will need to fix over the final 21 games. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, so there’s really no reason for Wade to get himself accustomed to playing on consecutive nights. And he warned Monday that it’s unlikely he will continue at this rate and play in both games of the five remaining back-to-back sets.
Considering the timing and opportunity, this was about Wade proving that there has been progress.
And that he could be there when needed.
“I paced myself,” Wade said. “We just needed this win and it was good for us. At this time of the year, I would love to play every night as we get into the groove to go into the playoffs.”
LeBron James 10-15 FG | 0-0 FT | 7 REB | 8 AST | 23 PTS LeBron entered Monday's action coming off the coldest three-game shooting slump of his career, shooting 11 percent outside the paint since his 61-point outing. Yeah, about that ... LeBron opened the game with three straight corner 3s, bang bang bang, and took off from there. He fell off his triple-double pace after halftime, but Miami didn't need LeBron's A-game with Dwyane Wade taking over down the stretch.
Dwyane Wade 8-17 FG | 6-6 FT | 5 REB | 6 AST | 22 PTS Playing in just his third back-to-back of the season, Wade came out as sharp as a sponge, but he absolutely carved up the Wizards' defense in the fourth quarter for 13 points. He was slow to get up from a fall early in the game, but he otherwise enjoyed a scare-free night. As is always the case with Wade after a back-to-back, monitor his status the rest of the week.
Chris Bosh 10-14 FG | 0-0 FT | 6 REB | 7 AST | 22 PTS Is he officially "Big Shot" Bosh now? With his big corner 3-pointer late in the fourth, Bosh is now 10-for-17 (59 percent) from downtown in clutch time this season (score within five in final five minutes). After splashing a trio of three-balls on Sunday, Bosh went back to work on the perimeter in this one, taking his first 10 shots of the game outside the paint. When he has that jumper going, who needs Ray Allen?
Ray Allen 5-9 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 2 AST | 13 PTS
While James' slump has hogged the headlines, Allen's has been mired in a deeper malaise for months now. With some off-balance 3s and crafty basket attacks, Allen put together just his fifth double-digit scoring night since the start of February. They'll need more of this effort against the stingy Nets defense on Wednesday night.
Launch 3s and crash the boards. If you're going to beat the Heat, you better capitalize in both of those categories. The Wizards did that with 12 triples and 21 offensive boards, but Marcin Gortat's 14-and-18 wasn't enough against the Heat's defense. With Nene sidelined, the Wizards aren't going to win many games when John Wall makes two buckets all night. Tough outing.
Dating back to last Monday's 61-point game, LeBron James has shot 11-for-14 on 3-pointers in the past week on his home floor.
LeBron James 8-23 FG | 0-0 FT | 9 REB | 8 AST | 17 PTS
After spending Saturday in Cleveland attending Zydrunas Ilgauskas' jersey retirement ceremony, James returned to the Heat and struggled once again to find his jump shot. This time, there were no sleeves to blame. Aside from some dunks and a wrestling match with Jimmy Butler, LeBron looked incredibly sleepy in the matinee. After scoring 61 less than a week ago, his confidence looks shaken.
Dwyane Wade 7-16 FG | 11-12 FT | 5 REB | 4 AST | 25 PTS
Wade faded late with some questionable decision-making (what's with the 3-point shots?), but he was Miami's only dependable source of offense for the majority of the game. With LeBron out of sync, Wade kept the Heat's offense afloat against the relentless Bulls defense. He, once again, busted out the oldest trick in the book, his signature perimeter pump fake, which continues to befuddle players of all ages.
Chris Bosh 6-10 FG | 0-0 FT | 5 REB | 1 AST | 15 PTS
Matching Joakim Noah's energy is never an easy task, but the Heat needed much more from Bosh inside the paint and on the boards. Bosh, like LeBron, has to be more aggressive inside against the Bulls. Regardless, Bosh rescued a sluggish offense with a pair of clutch 3s in the fourth quarter. No matter how often it happens, it's still mind-boggling that Bosh has been the Heat's most consistent clutch 3-point shooter.
Chris Andersen 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 13 REB | 0 AST | 2 PTS
Poor Carlos Boozer. The Chicago big man was the victim of not one, not two, but three Birdman blocks, including one that was spiked into Lake Michigan. Andersen put on a block party, collecting six on the afternoon and looking as imposing as ever. He was the only Heat player who looked like he got a full night's sleep. More Andersen-Noah matchups, please and thank you.
Just a classic Bulls performance. Joakim Noah knows no bounds. How many players can do what he does? He locked down LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in one-on-one opportunities, blocked five shots on Chicago's back line, broke his man off the dribble for buckets and routinely found the open man. With huge late contributions from Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and D.J. Augustin, the Bulls just never quit.
LeBron James failed to reach the free throw line for the first time since Dec. 12, 2009, when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James 6-18 FG | 7-9 FT | 8 REB | 7 AST | 19 PTS
LeBron James started with the mask, but removed it during a timeout in the first quarter, relinquishing all of his superhuman powers. Big mistake. Seriously though, LeBron forced some shots early and had a miserable time with his jumper, which has been ice-cold. Another thing, Kawhi Leonard is as close to a LeBron slower as we'll ever see.
Dwyane Wade 7-15 FG | 2-3 FT | 3 REB | 7 AST | 16 PTS
Wade wasn't at his best Thursday. Even though he looked sluggish, he was able to work economically in the lane and find shooters for easy buckets. You get the sense that Wade is just going through the motions until the playoffs arrive, which isn't such a bad thing for his long-term health. And autopilot Wade is better than most.
Chris Bosh 10-16 FG | 3-3 FT | 7 REB | 1 AST | 24 PTS
Bosh buoyed the Heat's offense as they scrambled to get their traction in the opening frames. His jumper was as smooth as ever from the elbows, but he wasn't active around the rim. On the other end of the floor, the Spurs routinely slipped through cracks to the basket early, which wasn't all on Bosh, but he certainly wasn't blameless.
Michael Beasley 5-10 FG | 0-0 FT | 6 REB | 0 AST | 11 PTS
After dropping 24 points in Tuesday's game, Beasley came out strong again in this one. He played - gasp! - both ends of the floor in this one and put in one of his highest IQ outings of the season. He forced a double take when he stopped Tim Duncan on the right block and swatted his shot. With Norris Cole, Shane Battier and Ray Allen struggling, Miami hopes this is the start of something.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs surgically dismantled the Heat, moving the ball and effortlessly slicing to the rim. The Heat should be thankful that the Spurs couldn't consistently hit an open shot or else this would have been a mercy-rule win for the West champs. Kawhi Leonard didn't score much, but he deserves the game ball for his brilliant work on LeBron.
LeBron James has shot 1-for-19 on jumpers since Monday's 61-point outing, including 1-for-11 in Thursday's loss.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty ImagesWith a Game 5 victory, Danny Green and the Spurs took a 3-2 lead in the 2013 Finals.
SAN ANTONIO -- Eight months later, it’s still difficult to discern which element nagged the Miami Heat most back then.
Was it the noise?
Or the numbers?
In customary fashion after big home playoff wins, many San Antonio Spurs fans had filled the streets and were banging pots and pans to celebrate being just one victory from the franchise’s fifth NBA title after the Spurs beat the Heat in Game 5 of the Finals this past summer.
But the more annoying noise for the Heat was the line of questions they took, facing the brink of elimination and a disastrous end to their season. And then there were the numbers.
The Spurs had just shot 60 percent from the field to obliterate Miami’s defense in a 114-104 victory that gave them a 3-2 series lead. And history revealed that the Game 5 winner of a series that was tied 2-2 had gone on to win the NBA championship 20 out of 27 times.
“We’re going to see if we’re better prepared for this moment,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said then.
Of course, those days of uncertainty last summer are long gone now for the Heat, who rallied to win the last two games of the series back in Miami to secure their second straight NBA title. But, as stunning as Ray Allen's clutch 3-pointer was in Game 6 and as remarkably efficient as LeBron James was in the Game 7 clincher, it was the moments after Game 5 that proved most pivotal for Miami.
When the Heat enter the AT&T Center for Thursday’s game against the Spurs, it will be their first trip back to San Antonio since June 16, 2013. That’s the date James, Chris Bosh and Wade left the arena facing elimination and speculation that their run as teammates might be over.
This time, the Heat return with a completely different vibe as they look to regroup from their first loss in nine games and fine-tune for a postseason run they hope will end with a third consecutive championship. But if there’s any place in the league that serves as a reminder heading down the stretch of the resolve necessary for Miami to push through any obstacles, it’s San Antonio.
After Tuesday’s loss in Houston, the Heat had a full day off in San Antonio on Wednesday to get reacquainted with the place before Thursday’s game. It remains a city they’d just as soon forget.
“It’s memories,” said James, who on Wednesday was named the league’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month. “We just played them in the Finals. Obviously, just going there is always a place of horrors. I haven’t had a lot of success there in my career. But it’s always fun going against a very, very well-coached, well-machined organization and team with so many great players.”
Barring any late developments, the Heat and the Spurs will have the core of their respective rotations available Thursday for the first time since Game 7 of the Finals. The Heat took the first meeting of the season with a 113-101 victory Jan. 26 in Miami, but the Spurs were without three injured starters.
The Spurs played all five of their starters from the Finals in Tuesday’s 122-101 win in Cleveland, with All-Star point guard Tony Parker in his second game back from a six-game absence to address injuries. It was one of the best performances of the season for San Antonio, which had 39 assists on 43 field goals.
The Heat (43-15) and Spurs (44-16) always have had plenty in common beyond their respective runs last year through the postseason. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich are the league’s two longest-tenured coaches with their teams, and they lead two of the NBA’s most decorated cores.
But they share more than recent history. The Heat and Spurs have the second-best records in their respective conferences and sit 1½ games back of the No. 1 seeds with six weeks left in the regular season. Both also have won eight of their past 10 games and have overcome some recent nagging injuries.
Nearly a year has passed, but not much has changed between these perennial contenders. That’s why the Heat had little interest in looking back to last season when it’s a strong possibility they could be looking down the road toward another June meeting with the Spurs in a Finals rematch.
“We don’t necessarily have fond memories; we did drop two of three there,” Spoelstra said of losing Games 3 and 5 in San Antonio in June. “The last game we had there was a tough one. That was probably the worst game we had over there. We had to really be able to collect ourselves, to be able to have that energy [needed] to win two games at home.”
The last time the Heat were on the Spurs' court, Manu Ginobili emerged from a postseason slump to finish with 24 points and 10 assists in Game 5. It was also the night Danny Green set the Finals records for 3-pointers by making six to bring his series total to 25 through five games. San Antonio had all five starters score in double figures, which prompted Spoelstra to rip his team’s effort afterward.
“At times, they were just picking one guy out at a time and going at us mano a mano,” Spoelstra said in his postgame comments. “That’s got to change.”
James then declared that Miami’s effort would be better in Game 6 out of necessity. Still, the Heat needed a miraculous finish -- and got one by rallying from a five-point deficit in the final 20 seconds -- to force a Game 7. When Popovich brought the Spurs to Miami for a preseason game, he told reporters he still has nightmares about how the final two games played out at AmericanAirlines Arena this past June. So evidently, there’s enough heartache on each opposing team’s home court to spread around.
The Spurs and Heat are two of the oldest teams in the league, although James, Wade and Bosh are much younger overall than Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Still, James suggests it’s always foolish to count out the Spurs based on their age. James said the Boston Celtics were the same way when skeptics thought they were over the hill in those last seasons with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
“I never buy into that,” James said. “I’ve always been asked about that. I never bought into that. I never bought into that with the Celtics team with Ray and KG and all of them. Everybody talked about they were too old, and next thing you know they’re in the Finals again.”
For now, the Heat aim to shake off Tuesday’s 106-103 loss in Houston and avoid being swept on the Texas leg of a three-game trip that wraps up Sunday in Chicago. Wade said the Heat can overlook the June losses in San Antonio and focus on their road victory there in Game 4 instead.
“We have to step up to the challenge,” Wade said. “We lost the first one on this road trip. And [San Antonio] is a place where, obviously, everyone has a tough time playing. But we’ve shown that we can win there. We’ve got to go in there and play a complete game.”
LeBron James 9-18 FG | 4-6 FT | 1 REB | 6 AST | 22 PTS Can't score 60 every night. James hasn't played all that well in his career in Houston and, on a back-to-back after using so much energy Monday, he wasn't quite at the top of his game Tuesday. He played reasonably well but was a non-factor in the fourth quarter. Had a chance to tie at the buzzer but missed a tough 3-pointer.
Dwyane Wade 8-15 FG |8-12 FT | 4 REB | 6 AST | 24 PTS
Wade looked pretty good after his night off and had plenty of energy on a night when the Heat were short of it as a team. He led a fourth-quarter run that nearly saved the game and he was the team's top offensive option down the stretch, which said a lot about James' energy level.
Chris Bosh 1-5 FG | 3-4 FT | 5 REB | 0 AST | 5 PTS
Quite a disappointing night from Bosh, who was not a factor at all in a game when the Heat needed it. Chris Andersen battled when he was in there, Bosh simply did not. He didn't look for his shot, either. Pretty much contributed nothing.
Dwight Howard 8-13 FG | 6-8 FT | 16 REB | 1 AST | 22 PTS
Pretty strong overall performance by Howard, who was aggressive offensively and helped the Rockets dominate on the glass. He altered plenty of shots, including James' attempt at a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Which came just after decking James with an inadvertent elbow in the final minute.
Definitely had a rest advantage on the Heat in this one, but that is the NBA. They generally stayed ahead throughout the game and survived a few Heat rallies. They have been excellent over the past two months and this certainly was a quality win.
Michael Beasley had a season-high 24 points off the bench, easily his finest performance of the season.
Over the past 11 years, LeBron James has played 958 regular-season and playoff games and never had a night like he did on Monday against the Charlotte Bobcats.
There are a lot of numbers ahead in this story that will put some perspective on James’ career-best 61-point night but none will articulate it better than that one. In those nearly 1,000 games, James has won four most valuable player awards, gone to four NBA Finals and won two championships, but he has probably never been hotter than he was in the Miami Heat’s 124-107 win.
Until Monday, the truly greatest scoring effort of James’ life may have actually happened in high school when he scored 52 points for St. Vincent-St. Mary in just 29 minutes in a game in which he was matched up against future NBA player Trevor Ariza of Weschester (Calif.) High School at a game in Trenton, N.J., in 2003. He had 35 points in the first half that night.
James put up 37 points in the second half against the Bobcats in what will go down as one of the finest shooting performances of his career. His 10th career 50-point game, James was so efficient by hitting 22 of 33 shots he did it in 41 minutes, the second-fewest minutes he has played in those 50-point games.
Ultimately, James greatest performances come with the attachment of playoff pressure. His 45-point exposition in an elimination game in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals in Boston may be at the top. Right along with that is his masterpiece Game 7, complete with his championship-icing jumper in the final minute. There’s also his 48-point game in the 2007 conference finals in which he scored his team’s last 25 points.
When it comes to raw achievement, however, Monday’s effort ranks at the top of the finest regular-season games of his career.
Here’s at look at his five greatest regular-season games:
5. March 20, 2005: On a Sunday afternoon in Toronto, James had what would stand as his best scoring game for nearly nine years as he put up 56 points with 10 rebounds and five assists. Less than three months after his 20th birthday, he became the youngest player ever to score 50 points in the NBA, breaking a mark that had been held by Rick Barry since 1965. Brandon Jennings broke that mark five years later, beating out James by about a month.
James made six 3-pointers but did a lot of damage at the foul line, going 14-of-15. He scored more than half of his team’s points and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Raptors, 104-98. The next day, Cavs coach Paul Silas was fired.
4. March 5, 2008: As he exited the game for the final time after he became just the third player since the NBA-ABA merger to have a 50-point, 10-assist game the crowd gave James a standing ovation and chanted “M-V-P.” What made that special was the game took place at Madison Square Garden. A young fan even ran past security and up to James while he was in his team’s huddle in the fourth quarter.
He had 30 of his 50 points in the second half and finished with 11 assists and eight rebounds. He made four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Cavs finish off a 119-105 win.
3. Feb. 20, 2009: There was a three-minute stretch in this game in Milwaukee that may go down as the hottest James as ever been. He started it off by nailing a 33-foot shot at the buzzer of the first half. Then he scored 16 points in the first 2:50 of the second half and at one point made 3-pointers on four of five possessions.
His Cavs teammates bounced on the bench as each time down he seemed to go farther and farther back behind the 3-point line. He finished the quarter with five 3-pointers and scored 24 of his 55 points as he carried the team to a 111-103 victory over the Bucks. He also had nine assists and five rebounds that night, though he missed seven free throws, which cost him a chance at setting his career high.
2. Feb. 4, 2009: In one of the greatest games ever by an opponent at Madison Square Garden, James became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 to score 50 points in a triple-double as he put up 52 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists as the Cavs beat the Knicks, 107-102. It happened the same week Kobe Bryant had set a record by putting up 61 points at the Garden.
Or so it appeared. The next day, the NBA reversed a scoring decision and took away a rebound that was awarded to James in the final minute, so history will not view it as a triple-double. He had 20 points in the first quarter and made 16 of 19 free throws in the game.
1. March 3, 2014: Already holding the record for most points scored in a game for the Cavs, James became the single-game record holder for the Heat with his first 60-point game. He tied a career high with eight 3-pointers as he broke Glen Rice’s team record of 56 points.
He had the best-scoring quarter of his career, putting up 25 points in the third. He did it on only 33 shots but took nine free throws, his fewest attempts in the 10 50-point games of his career.
In a career as decorated as James’ has been over the past decade-plus, it takes something beyond remarkable to rise above all his previous achievements. Monday was a masterpiece, one that may linger at the top for the rest of his career.
LeBron James 22-33 FG | 9-12 FT | 7 REB | 5 AST | 61 PTS
Clearly that mask isn't affecting LeBron's depth perception. James started 8-of-8 from deep before forcing another two that missed in his initial attempts to get to 60 points. The run to 61 kept him in the game longer than Erik Spoelstra probably would've wanted (40 minutes, playing nearly the entire second half) when the team plays in Houston Tuesday night. But setting this career high, then setting it past 60, was clearly in LeBron's sights.
If he doesn't sit this game out, that performance from LeBron probably doesn't happen. Well timed, sir.
Chris Bosh 6-14 FG | 2-2 FT | 7 REB | 0 AST | 15 PTS
Bosh couldn't do anything with Al Jefferson -- not that anyone else really could -- and missed more open jumpers than he normally does in the first half. He did play aggressively in the spots when LeBron wasn't looking to score, putting up 14 shots as the only other Heat player with double-figure attempts.
Greg Oden/Chris Andersen
It wasn't until Oden entered the game that Jefferson was taken out of rhythm. Jefferson still got the best of Oden a couple of times, but Oden added four points in his five minutes, combining with Andersen to shoot 5-of-5 from the field, including an Andersen 3-pointer.
Al Jefferson 18-24 FG | 2-4 FT | 19 REB | 1 AST | 38 PTS
If this remains LeBron James' career-high game, Jefferson can say he was the most dominant force in the game ... for a half. Jefferson scored 26 points in the first half, finishing with 38 points on 18-of-24 shooting with 19 rebounds.
The Heat are now 11-3 this season when LeBron James hits at least three 3-pointers in a game. Before his eight 3s Monday, his previous season high was five against Denver on Dec. 30.
MIAMI -- All it took to comprehend just how far Greg Oden has come since the start of training camp five months ago was to see him on the court with LeBron James the other night in the second quarter.
As James moved to the left wing with the ball toward the Miami Heat’s bench, Oden subtly slipped behind his defender in the lane to the right of the basket and launched his 7-foot, 275-pound frame into the air and motioned toward the rim.
In a split second, James spotted his open big man and connected perfectly with Oden for the lob dunk midway through the Heat’s blowout win Saturday against the Orlando Magic.
Al Diaz/Getty ImagesIn his slow but steady comeback, Greg Oden faces a series of tough big men this week.
And all it takes to understand just how tough Oden is on himself despite the strides he has made on the heels of a four-year layoff is to grasp his explanation of arguably the best play he has made all season. Asked if the way he finished the setup from James was reminiscent of his days back in Portland before multiple knee surgeries derailed his career, Oden shook his head and quickly rejected the notion.
“No,” Oden said, flatly. “Because [back then], I would have jumped a little bit higher.”
Oden is one of the most dominant forces in the league when it comes to self-deprecation. If the former No. 1 overall pick has maintained at least one thing through the season, it’s the perspective to accept it’s going to take more than four months to knock off four years of rust from injuries and inactivity.
But Oden is gaining both confidence and rhythm -- albeit one possession at a time -- with his role and playing time having slightly increased in recent weeks. He is coming off modest season highs in both minutes played (13) and points (eight) during Saturday’s victory.
And Oden hopes to build on his best quarter of the season, when he made all three of his baskets and hit a pair of free throws after coming off the bench for a stint in the second period against Orlando. Among the reasons coach Erik Spoelstra said Miami was not overly aggressive in trying to make a significant addition to the roster is because the front office believes Oden’s gradual emergence has given the Heat the sort of boost akin to a midseason trade.
Perhaps no week of the regular season will offer a better assessment as to where Oden stands than the one Miami opens with Monday’s game against Charlotte to end a four-game homestand. The Heat have two back-to-back sets in eight days, which could test the extent of Oden’s conditioning if he plays consecutive nights. And with the Bobcats, Rockets, Spurs and Bulls on deck, Oden stands to face four of the league’s most productive big men in Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Joakim Noah.
By this time next week, the Heat could get a much better feel for what Oden might be able to offer heading down the stretch and into the playoffs, specifically against teams with bigger frontlines. But even with 26 games remaining in the regular season, Spoelstra continues to preach patience and big-picture perspective with Oden considering how far he has come just to get to this stage of promise.
“The biggest victory for him is that he is available and in uniform,” Spoelstra said of Oden. “We continue to want to be disciplined. He has put in a great deal of work to get to this point. He’s a smart player that has picked up our system in a short period of time. I like the contributions he’s been making, and he’s been putting in a tremendous amount of work just to be available every night like he is.”
Just being able to put a uniform on each night is considered tremendous progress for Oden, who overcame some early setbacks in his rehab and conditioning in training camp and the preseason. The high-water mark came last Sunday, when Oden started for the first time in four years in a win over Chicago as James sat out after breaking his nose the previous game.
Spoelstra said he hasn’t considered going bigger and starting Oden on a regular basis, largely because he has been prone to picking up fouls and has struggled with his timing. But there has been gradual progress for Oden, who has played in eight of the past 10 games and 13 overall this season.
Heat president Pat Riley, who began monitoring and recruiting Oden early in his attempts to resurrect his career, has endured every up and down his project center has faced along the way. In a rare session with reporters, Riley addressed Oden’s status during the Heat’s Family Festival fundraising event Sunday.
“I’m just happy for him,” said Riley, who signed Oden to a one-year contract for $1.3 million. “I can’t imagine what a player would go through when you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft, and all of a sudden you’re sitting out for 3½ years. I root for him more than I’ve ever rooted for anybody. I just want him to feel good about himself again and make a contribution.”
Riley also suggested the team has also gone through growing pains with Oden behind the scenes.
“Our training staff has done an incredible job of getting to a perfect time, through trial and error, of exactly how many minutes he can play, what his knee feels like the next day and how they’re treating him, which is allowing him to play every night,” Riley said. “I just cross my fingers and knock on wood every day that he stays healthy. And if he does, he’s going to get better. And if he gets better, than we’ll get better. That’s why we brought him in.”
Beyond the health of Dwyane Wade’s knees, Oden’s potential impact represents the next biggest X factor for the Heat amid their pursuit of a third consecutive championship. As a result, Oden knows he’s a work in progress, but also believes he’s ready to pick up the pace.
“It’s just the more I play, the more comfortable I get out there [and] the more they get comfortable with me,” Oden said of working alongside James, Wade and Chris Bosh within the regular rotation. “When my knee feels good, I’m always going to feel I can do more. There’s always going to be a progression with me. But I’m out there playing, and that’s all that matters.”
A reliable and consistent role appears to be on the horizon.
“He continues to get his legs under him,” James said. “I love the way Spo is playing him right now. In the second quarter, he knows he is going in. He’s ready every time and gives us great production.”
Having seen the flashes of Oden’s impact, teammates naturally long for more as they move forward.
“Now is the time for him to take the next step and get to the next level,” forward Shane Battier said. “He’s capable of next-level things. We just need him to be big and be in the right spot.”
That spot is in the middle of all of the action in the paint. And when Oden is there, his presence allows Bosh to shift to his more natural position of power forward. Bosh has thrived when he has been able to step out to the perimeter and create mismatches when Oden or Chris Andersen mans the middle.
“We’re going to need him down the line,” said Bosh, looking toward a potential Eastern Conference finals rematch against the big and bulky Indiana Pacers. “We just need him to continue to evolve.”
It’s an evolution that has been four years in the making. Now, Oden appears on the cusp of a regular rotation role. That’s what makes this week such a big test against a solid line of opposing centers.
“That’s why they brought me here, to play against other big guys and put another body in there,” said Oden, who has averaged 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in nine minutes a game. “I’m happy to be on the team. You just don’t know what to expect when you join a team that’s two-time defending champions. Everything is a surprise to me still. So when I get a chance to play, I just don’t want to mess up.”
MIAMI -- After 11 seasons in the league, Dwyane Wade has reached the point at which many opponents believe they’ve got his game figured out on a given night.
The star Miami Heat guard loves the sound of that process at work.
"Sometimes, it’s funny, because you hear guys trying to call out your moves, or you hear the [opposing] bench saying, 'Don’t let him do this. Don’t let him do that,'" Wade said Saturday night. "And you just counter it. That’s what I was able to do."
At age 32, Wade has essentially reached the wise-man stage of his career. Knee issues that have hounded him each of the past two seasons have forced Wade to get here a bit sooner than he planned, but he’s at the point now at which the combination of athletic limitations and physical preservation has rendered it more prudent for Wade to attack the game with his mind as much as his body.
Wade took another modest step in that transformation during the Heat’s 112-98 victory Saturday against the young and struggling Orlando Magic. Playing in his second game with a highly scrutinized mask to protect his broken nose, LeBron James has 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in only three quarters as the Heat cruised to their seventh straight win.
But it’s in these kind of matchups in which Wade’s veteran savvy and "old-man game" come clearly into focus as he sizes up more athletic and less experienced defenders before breaking them down. Methodically dissecting the Magic with a balanced midrange attack, Wade made 10 of his 14 shots to lead the Heat with 24 points and added four assists, three rebounds, a steal and a block in 30 minutes.
When he wasn’t backing smaller defenders into the post, Wade was slipping past bigger players to get to the rim. He mixed pull-up jumpers with running hooks -- basically feasting on the kind of moves gracefully aging fathers historically rely on to squeeze out those final one-on-one games against sons.
There’s no shame in Wade’s maturing game.
"I think as you get older, your game has to change," said Wade, who has scored at least 20 points in each of his past four games. "You have to think the game more than anything. When you’re young, you just react and you just do [it]. Now, you have to think. And certain games, when I’m frustrated with myself, it’s because I’m not thinking the game the way that I should. But for [the] majority of them, I do a good job of thinking and reading the game more differently than I have [in the past]."
That cerebral process has resulted in Wade's shooting percentages increasing to career-high marks each of the past two seasons as he’s gradually settled into a comfort zone within the Heat’s structure alongside fellow perennial All-Stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Although the Heat have advanced to the Finals each season since the three came together in 2010, meshing their games hasn’t been easy.
James has led the way primarily as a dominant facilitator, who instinctively knows when to pull back, set aside his own game at times and makes sure Wade still has opportunities to take over games. Bosh has had to embrace an entire makeover to his game on both ends of the court while being a third option.
Wade has had to dance between them both, which has also been complicated by knee injuries that have seen him evolve from one of the most relentless and reckless attacking guards that largely played above the rim to a more measured, methodical player who feasts on a balanced floor game.
"The worst-kept secret is the fact that he has worked on his game and developed his game for the last three years to not only reinvent himself, but -- more importantly -- to add a skill set that is important for this group," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Saturday. "He couldn’t just be the same player that he was before the way this team had been put together. It has been a long, steady process of developing his post-up game and his midrange game."
Since the All-Star break, Wade is shooting 61.6 percent from the field while averaging 21.4 points, 5.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 32.6 minutes. Before the break, Wade had missed 15 of the Heat’s 51 games mainly to rest and recover from lingering soreness in his right knee.
Heat coaches and teammates have seen a different Wade over the past two weeks, with his upswing in production and consistency two clear signs of his improving health entering the season’s stretch run.
"He’s in a great rhythm right now," James said. "It starts with his health. He’s not 100 percent, obviously, but he’s got his legs under him and a bounce to his step. He’s playing his game, and he’s not second-guessing it. And it’s great to see. His ability to go outside-inside, then inside-outside is definitely a benefit to him and to this team."
Bosh agrees with James’ assessment of Wade, who is shooting a career-high 55.1 percent overall.
"He’s even more deadly than he was before because he’s more efficient," Bosh said. "We’re getting him in more pick-and-roll situations, which he can do in his sleep, but getting him down on the block a lot against mismatches has been very effective for us. This is what he does now, and we see it every day."
Wade has also benefited from an accommodating schedule in recent weeks. After sitting out the past two games on the road before the break, Wade requested, and played, limited minutes during the Feb. 16 All-Star Game in New Orleans. The Heat since had five games spaced out over 12 days.
But the Heat’s schedule picks up from here, with five games in eight days. That stretch also includes a three-game trip to play the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls. It begins with a back-to-back that starts Monday at home against the Charlotte Bobcats before facing the Rockets on Tuesday and ends with a home game against the Washington Wizards on March 10 a day after playing the Bulls.
Wade has not routinely played games on consecutive nights amid his early-season recovery from a summer shockwave treatment on his right knee for an injury that lingered from the Heat’s run to a second straight championship last season. Both Wade and Spoelstra have said the approach over the remaining months of the season will be just as cautious as it was during the first few months.
The object is to keep Wade feeling healthy and playing at a high level going into the playoffs.
So far, so good.
"When I feel good, I play well; sometimes, it’s just as simple as that," Wade said recently. "I’m in one of those grooves right now, just taking my shots. Some of them are wide open, and some of them are not. I’m just taking the ones I’m comfortable with. Just reading, giving guys different moves."
LeBron James 8-12 FG | 4-5 FT | 9 REB | 7 AST | 20 PTS Easily could've been a triple-double if James was needed in the fourth quarter. After a taxing and painful stretch around the All-Star break, James has gotten a lot of time off recently, and this game was another pleasantly light load.
Dwyane Wade 10-14 FG | 4-5 FT | 3 REB | 4 AST | 24 PTS
Wade shot 61 percent in February, and that midrange shot was still very much in tune the first game of March. He's now 20-of-27 in the past four games from that area. Not only is Wade moving beautifully these days, but his rhythm with the second unit is ideal, as is his on-court chemistry with James.
Chris Bosh 5-8 FG | 5-5 FT | 3 REB | 0 AST | 17 PTS
Bosh probably would've had a big scoring night if foul trouble hadn't kept his minutes down. He missed a few bunnies in the opening moments of the game and then was almost perfect the rest of the way. His 3-point shot continues to be a weapon.
Nikola Vucevic 9-14 FG | 0-0 FT | 10 REB | 0 AST | 18 PTS He crushed the Heat over and over last season, putting up a couple 20-point, 20-rebound games. This season, partially because of injuries, he wasn't much of a factor as the Heat swept the season series. But he did have a big night that was cut short because of the blowout.
It's hard to give the Magic a grade really. They are just so overmatched in a game like this, especially without Arron Afflalo. The game went about as was expected -- they couldn't handle the Heat's Big Three, and turnovers were very costly.
The Heat are now 20-1 this season when they score 50 or more points in the paint, as they did Saturday.
The Heat and Magic play tonight at 7:30 ET in Miami for Florida bragging rights. Our 3-on-3 crew weighs in.
1. LeBron's mask is ...
Israel Gutierrez: But a memory. With the league requesting LeBron go to a clear mask, and LeBron knowing that nose protection isn't worth fighting the league over, it seems the black mask will be a one-game deal. As long as his light, clear version of the mask is available to him, he'll wear the less-cool version. Who knows, maybe that black mask becomes something of a collector's item.
Tom Haberstroh: A Halloween best-seller for NBA fans next October. Part of me wants him to go Rip Hamilton style and make that a permanent thing, but I also understand a black jersey makes it all work. Maybe Space Jam II wasn't meant to be and The Mask II is really his calling. Of course, Jamie Kennedy has to ruin everything.
Brian Windhorst: A great side distraction to break up the monotony of the season. Sure the fans loved it but so did his teammates. A team in a long season needs such relief. Sort of like what the dunk show in Phoenix a few weeks ago provided.
2. Dwyane Wade's recent play reveals ...
Gutierrez: That Wade's and the Heat's season-long plan to keep him as healthy as possible is working. Last year at this time, Wade was playing at a similar level. It wasn't until a knee bruise late in the 27-game win streak that Wade's play dropped off. This year, the idea is to keep him at this level. It's still possible he could get hurt again this year, but clearly the plan remains on a positive track.
Haberstroh: Not much. We already knew that when he's healthy, he's still Dwyane Wade. I still don't think it matters too much in the long run. Really, will we remember this hot stretch for Wade come May or June? Doubtful.
Windhorst: He's still a top-flight player, one of the best guards in the league. But we already knew that. What no one, including Wade, knows is how his body will be in the late rounds of the playoffs. And that is really all that matters.
3. The Heat's approach to the No 1 seed should be ...
Gutierrez: Exactly as it is now: Nabbing it would be a benefit of playing playoff-level basketball. The Heat aren't playing for the top seed, per se, but know they very well could secure it if they continue to play at this level. And if that happens, Miami will know they've dented the Pacers' confidence. That would be an additional reward for the Heat.
Haberstroh: If it happens in the context of ensuring Wade's healthy, it's icing on the cake. Otherwise, the smart play is to give Wade rest even if it means a couple games lost in the standings. The potential reward of a healthy Wade come playoff time is far worth more than the off chance that they play a Game 7 in Miami.
Windhorst: Get it. They can downplay it all they want, but there's no doubt about its value. Not just in the East but against the West leaders, too. They have closed the gap from their relatively sluggish start to the season and the top overall seed is for the taking. It's not more important than health but it's a close second.
LeBron James 13-19 FG | 4-6 FT | 4 REB | 4 AST | 31 PTS
While the Phantom of the Opera-like protective mask overshadowed just about everything LeBron did on the court in his first game back from a broken nose, there were plenty of impressive moments with his game. James anticipated there would be some tentativeness as he adjusted to the mask, but he was in attack mode and showed little rust after a week of rest.
Dwyane Wade 10-13 FG | 3-4 FT | 2 REB | 1 AST | 23 PTS
There's absolutely no shame in Wade's adjustment to his "old-man game." Wade performed at the peak of efficiency with an array of crafty, below-the-rim moves that allowed him to dominate his matchup with Knicks defenders. Wade has scored at least 20 in three consecutive games. Early turnovers added a bit of a blemish to his night.
Chris Bosh 3-6 FG | 0-0 FT | 7 REB | 0 AST | 6 PTS
Yes, Bosh was in uniform and on the court, but he was hardly noticeable on a night when he took just three shots through the first three quarters. It was easy to fade into the background, with LeBron attacking relentlessly and Wade picking his spots throughout the game, but Bosh struggled in other areas of his game as well, particularly on the boards in his battle against Tyson Chandler.
Mario Chalmers 5-8 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 1 AST | 11 PTS
It was another steady, quietly impressive performance from Chalmers, who played a solid game on both ends of the court. Chalmers was able to penetrate as well as spot up for open jumpers. He defended embattled Knicks point guard Raymond Felton into a 1-of-7 night from the field. This comes after Chalmers had 12 points, nine assists, two steals and a block Sunday against Chicago.
Carmelo Anthony 11-20 FG | 4-6 FT | 7 REB | 2 AST | 29 PTS
It was more of the same for Carmelo, who scored well but found his efforts wasted in another demoralizing loss. The Knicks entered the game clinging to hope there's still time to rally over their final 25 games to make the playoffs. Carmelo said Thursday that the Knicks' finish won't necessarily factor into his free-agency decision. While it's a noble notion, it's also difficult to believe.
The Heat closed out February with a 9-1 record (the loss coming against the Jazz). Over the past three seasons, Miami is now 32-4 in the month, including a perfect 15-0 mark in February home games over that span.