|LBJ is no longer deferring to his teammates, and he's putting up historic numbers. (AP)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- It took only six minutes Tuesday to see it. It was that obvious. This LeBron James, he's not the guy from last season. The guy last season was good, even great, but he wasn't having fun. He was playing with his head, not his heart, and LeBron James' head -- as we saw in the 2011 NBA Finals -- is the weakest part of his game.
This LeBron James, he's different. He's better. And what that means is that finally, after more than a year, Miami is playing like the Miami everyone expected to see when LeBron arrived. Miami is playing like the Miami that can win not one, not two, not three ... but a whole lot of NBA championships.
LeBron's Heat is playing like LeBron's Cavaliers. Only better.
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That's what I saw before the first TV timeout of the Heat's 105-90 dismantling of the Pacers. LeBron wasn't trying to fit in. He was trying to take over, right from the start. Last season he seemed to play with one eye on D-Wade, as if not wanting to miss the chance to be a great teammate. Now LeBron plays with both eyes on the rim, not wanting to miss the chance to be a great player. If Wade or Bosh or someone flashed open in a good spot, LeBron found them. Otherwise, it was full steam ahead. To the rim or bust.
And it was obvious. I saw it in the first quarter. Don't believe me? Check out the time stamp on this tweet from the game, when I noted, "Different LeBron from last year. I see it. I see why, I know why. Column's coming. But first, I'm gonna talk to him!"
So I talked to him after the game, knew what I had seen, but I didn't ask a leading question. Not really. I just told him he seems more assertive this season. He took it from there:
"I'm more comfortable," he said. "Last year, it was a very difficult season for me, mentally and physically. I'm back to how I was, my last few years in Cleveland -- getting teammates involved, getting myself involved."
Back to how I was, my last few years in Cleveland.
This is the old LeBron, and the old LeBron won two MVPs by age 25 and was the guy some thought could go down as the best player in NBA history. That ship has sailed, or rather crashed upon the rocks of last season's NBA Finals, but he still has all that talent, and this season he's unleashing it for the Heat.
No more of that Wonder Twins nonsense from a year ago, when LeBron tried to fit in with Wade as if they were equals. They're not. Wade is a great player, a Hall of Fame player, one of the best five or 10 players in the world -- but he's not as good as LeBron. To pretend otherwise, as LeBron pretended all of last season and the first part of this season, is counterproductive.
More to the point, it's counter-intuitive. It means LeBron is thinking, and if there's one thing LeBron doesn't do well on the court, it's think. That's not a slam of his intelligence, because LeBron is obviously a smart guy. But he was born to play basketball, born not just with supreme basketball ability but with eerie basketball instincts. He's not at his best when he thinks too much, and for proof I would point out his career free-throw percentage of 74.5 percent, which almost identically mirrors the league average.
Give LeBron time to think, and he's average. Give him the ball and get the hell out of his way? He's one of the best to ever play this game.
That's how LeBron has played -- is playing -- this season. According to one statistic, the advanced metric called PER (Player Efficiency Rating), LeBron is having the best season in NBA history.
Did you read that last sentence? Read it again. LeBron's PER is 32.3, which is ahead of the single-season record PER of 31.8 set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962, when he averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. Obviously the key word in this metric is efficiency, seeing how LeBron is averaging "only" 28.2 ppg and 8.2 rpg, but LeBron is shooting a career-best 54.7 percent, getting to the line as often as he ever has, settling for fewer 3-pointers than ever.
He's playing smarter, which is to say, he's playing without thinking about stuff anymore. No more deferring to Dwyane Wade, whose franchise he crashed a year ago. No more of that. Now this is LeBron's franchise.
For proof, I would point out his time of arrival for Tuesday's game, the third in three nights for the Heat, all on the road. They won Sunday by 20 in Atlanta and Monday by 18 in Milwaukee, and when they showed up Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, "They were glassy-eyed," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Actually, when they showed up at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they were wide-eyed. Because they saw that LeBron was already there. He had been there for almost two hours.
"He was stretching, warming up," Spoelstra said of James. "It just shows his commitment. It's leadership."
Yes, it was. LeBron's not pretending otherwise. Not anymore.
"That's my leadership," he said.
It wasn't going to be this way, that's my guess, had Dwyane Wade not been injured. But he did get hurt, first his foot and then his ankle, and he missed action in two multi-game chunks. The first time, it was three games; the second time, five. In those eight games, the Heat won seven. Why? Because LeBron took over. No more did he have to worry about who was Batman and who was Robin. Now there was no debate; LeBron had to be Superman.
Back to how I was, my last few years in Cleveland.
That leads to some comical moments. There was the defensive rebound that floated between James and Mario Chalmers in the first half. Both grabbed for it, but James ripped it away, spun and passed ahead. The Pacers were able to thwart the fast break, and James turned and scolded Chalmers. In the second half, the same thing happened between James and Udonis Haslem. When James ripped the ball away, Haslem hung his head dejectedly.
Another time, LeBron attacked the Pacers defense, ran into a double team and kicked the ball out to Norris Cole. When Cole didn't shoot, LeBron ran up to him and tried to take the ball from his hands. Cole refused to give it up, so LeBron went down to the low post and demanded the ball. This time, Cole gave it to him.
LeBron kicked it back out when another double team showed up, because he's not a selfish player. Not close to selfish, which explains why he was so lost last season. He wasn't comfortable taking the team away from Wade, so he didn't. Not last year, anyway, and you see how that turned out. But LeBron has ripped the team away from Wade this season, ripped it away like a defensive rebound, and that's just the way it's going to be.
These Heat should win the NBA Finals this season, by the way. Wade and Bosh are still Wade and Bosh. Haslem, Chalmers, Joel Anthony ... they're back. Shane Battier is an upgrade over Juwan Howard. Cole is an upgrade over Mike Bibby.
LeBron is an upgrade over LeBron. He's playing like he played in Cleveland, before he became known as the guy who disappears in the fourth quarter of the biggest games. In Cleveland? Disappear? Sucker, in Cleveland he scored his team's final 25 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. In Cleveland, he wasn't the shrinking superstar. In Cleveland, he was the Honey Badger. He took what he wanted, and there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about it.
That LeBron is back.
Of course, it's only February. Let's see if this LeBron sticks around through late June.