MIAMI -- The morning after is always the difficult part for LeBron James.
That was the source of the frustration for James late in the third quarter of Monday’s game against the Utah Jazz as he limped off the court, dropped to his knees and pounded a stack of towels and pads near the Miami Heat's bench.
James' punch landed with so much force in front of a hushed crowd that the emphatic thud could be heard throughout AmericanAirlines Arena. The Heat were performing at an all-time high on the way to crushing the Jazz 117-94 while shooting a franchise-record 63.4 percent from the field.
But at that moment with 1:15 left in the third quarter, James was at an all-too-familiar low. The Heat star forward was doing what he’d done countless times before in leading the Heat in transition out in the open court. But this time, as he shifted direction to make a move toward the basket, James tripped over his own foot and sprained his left ankle in the process.
“Just frustration,” James said as he described his immediate reaction. “I was working my way back to 100 percent. I was feeling great coming into the game, going up and down the floor, rebounding, doing things. I didn't step on nobody’s foot. My ankle just turned. So it’s frustrating.”
James eventually returned to the game in the fourth quarter and finished with 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists -- finishing an assist and a rebound short of a triple-double for the second straight game. But the bigger concern wasn't how James allowed that rebound to get away to Derrick Favors or how Ray Allen could miss the wide-open look James set up for him that turned into a squandered assist.
Instead, the bigger concern was waiting to see just how large James’ ankle would swell overnight as the Heat prepare for Wednesday’s marquee showdown with the Indiana Pacers. James said it was too soon to determine his availability for that game, when the teams meet for the second time in eight days.
“I know I’ll be sore in the morning, I know,” James said. “I’ve been here before. So it’s day to day. We’ll see what happens.”
James is likely headed for two full days of treatment before his status will be determined for Wednesday’s game. He reduced the scare level surrounding his injury when he came back into the game -- with the Heat already well in control late in the fourth quarter -- to test the ankle. There were times when he appeared to drag his left leg through several possessions.
Then, James drove to the basket with 3:10 remaining for his fourth dunk of the game to further reduce those concerns and cap a night when he played 34 minutes and made 13 of his 17 shots.
“It can't get no worse by playing,” James said when asked why he decided to come back in the fourth quarter. “It gets worse if you sit there and you let it get stiff. That’s when it gets worse. I was excited I could go back out there and make some plays, finish the game off.”
So it was no wonder James' teammates shrugged off any potential worries about his condition.
“It was the ankle that he has tweaked before a few times,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “So we just watched him with a careful eye.”
James has been an absolute tank for the Heat the past four seasons, so much so that his health and availability often seems to be taken for granted. But the reality is that James has been vulnerable at times this season and has come close to requesting time off to rest. Instead, he kept playing because others were dealing with more pressing injuries.
James has been dealing with a sore back for months and has also played with a twisted ankle and jammed fingers. Yet every time Spoelstra turns in his lineup card to the official scorer before games, James is always there. Even amid the most efficient season of his career, the most dominant aspect of James is his durability. He’s the only Heat player to start every game this season, with backup point guard Norris Cole the only other person on the roster who has yet to miss a game.
Heat center Chris Bosh was only half-joking when he downplayed concerns about James’ ankle Monday.
“He does it once a year, so this is his time,” Bosh said. “And it’s usually in December, too. [He] got that out the way, and we can keep moving on.”
Chances are James will be back on the court Wednesday, although the Heat’s general approach is to milk all of the uncertainty they can out of his situation. Spoelstra will likely follow his usual protocol and wait until 45 minutes before the game to reveal if James will actually play.
But the Heat would like to extend their regained chemistry and rhythm into the matchup against the Pacers. Miami is 2-0 on their five-game homestand since returning from a 90-84 loss Dec. 10 at Indiana. The Pacers overcame a sluggish first half to hold the Heat to 37 points over the final two periods.
By comparison, the Heat scored 36 points in the pivotal third quarter Monday, when they overcame a 50-47 halftime deficit against the team with the second-worst record in the league. Miami scored 70 points in the second half, their most in a half this season, to win their franchise-record 17th game in a row against a Western Conference team.
While James sat out the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter, the Heat ran their offense through Wade and Bosh, who combined for 47 points and 11 rebounds. Miami stretched an 11-point lead to 18 before James decided to test his ankle in the final minutes of the game.
“A guy like LeBron goes down and the other two guys are going to step up,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “Wade and Bosh were special. Wade is the guy who is going to carry the load for them. Then Bosh got going some. They know what and who they are. They know how to play in different situations.”
But they aren't accustomed to playing in many situations when James isn't available.
And James doesn't want to disrupt the flow just when his body was starting to cooperate and his team was beginning to click. So it wouldn't be surprising if he summons those quick-healing powers again.
“I know him; he has super ankles,” Wade said. “I just know he needed to tie [his shoes] tighter. The next day whenever you sprain ankles, you'll be sore. But he has another day before we play, so he’ll be fine.”
Considering James’ recovery track record, his team couldn't fathom it any other way.