INDIANAPOLIS -- The taxi rolled into the loading dock at Bankers Life Fieldhouse around 3 p.m. ET, four hours before the Miami Heat were scheduled to tip off with the Indiana Pacers. It was a short fare for the driver, just a few blocks from the team hotel, but probably his most memorable customer of the week.
LeBron James and one of the team’s trainers stepped out and walked through an empty building to an empty locker room. When the “early” Heat bus arrived at the arena, the one that transports coaches and young players who aren’t likely to play often, James was already in uniform on the floor.
It’s not unheard of for an NBA player to get to an arena early, even on the road. It’s not rare for players to look for time to squeeze in extra shooting work, even established veterans. But this was quite unusual and unexpected.
The Heat were about to play their third game in as many nights, all on the road. James was less than 24 hours removed from one of the best shooting nights of his life, when he went 16-of-21 up in Milwaukee. Taking the late bus to the arena and getting a pregame massage would have been acceptable and assumable.
Then he went out and scored 23 points with nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals in just 33 minutes. He logged so few minutes because the Heat blew out the Pacers, 105-90. The lead was 35 points when James went to the bench for good.
His night had started, and ended, early.
“It’s all about leadership,” James said. “We weren’t going to use tonight as an excuse or a crutch, knowing that we had a back-to-back-to-back. My mindset was to get here early and prepare.”
There was some grumbling last week when some Heat players looked at the schedule and discovered they’d be playing their fourth game in five nights in Indiana while the Pacers would be coming off two nights of rest.
If the NBA were a utopia, every team would get max effort every night. Obviously it isn’t, and all the time during the winter months there are examples of teams short on rest dogging games, especially on the road. Days in advance, the Heat already had an acceptable excuse lined up.
But at the team’s meeting Tuesday morning, coach Erik Spoelstra told his crew they had a chance to be the first since 1979 to win games on the road three straight nights. Of course, that’s a circumstantial stat -- teams don’t play three nights in a row anymore unless there’s a lockout-shortened season. Nonetheless, it was something that wasn’t done in the lifetime of any of the team’s players except for Juwan Howard and Shane Battier.
That tidbit, though, seemed to pique the interest of players, especially an NBA history buff like James. He certainly acted like he cared about it.
“That showed his commitment and leadership and his knowledge of history,” Spoelstra said. “He knew we could do something special as a team.”
In the end, the third straight blowout victory stretched the history even further. They became the first team since the Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson-led 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks to win road games on three straight nights by double figures.
The Pacers, who already had a 30-point loss to the Heat this season on the ledger, did not put up much of a fight and now have four-game losing streak. Neither Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, who combined for 30 points and 13 rebounds, were required to put in more than 26 minutes.
The only drama, it turned out, came in the last few minutes. There was lots of screaming and calls for security. Not for when Howard was ejected after he developed a late-game vendetta against the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson.
It was for James and Wade as they scanned the crowd to decide who to give their shoes to. James spotted a young girl five sections away from the Heat bench who was waving a sign that read “LeBron, be my Valentine” and had security guards bring her to the court.
“That was special,” James said. “I saw her cheering and jumping up and down.”