1. Heat Have Become LeBron's Team
MIAMI -- It started with the music.
LeBron James preferred a different introduction song when the Miami Heat players were announced at home. The song was changed. James wanted music to be played in the locker room, not just in headphones, before the game. Loudly. The change was permitted.
It has manifested itself in dozens of different of other ways, both blatant and subtle, recently. James has been taking over the Heat, becoming the focal point and becoming the floor leader. It may not be permanent. Few things in the game are, even if some prefer definitive and unwavering declarations. But right now the Heat are James' team.
It may never have been more clear than in the Heat's 83-72 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Thursday, a win that trimmed the Bulls' hold on the top seed in the Eastern Conference to 1½ games. These two teams may not have considered it a vital game -- the Bulls played again without Derrick Rose because of a foot injury, and the Heat played without Chris Bosh -- but it sure was an indication of where things currently stand.
James had 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. He led the Heat in all three categories. This is unremarkable. He has led Miami in scoring for 12 straight games now, the longest streak of any Heat player since he joined up with Dwyane Wade and Bosh in 2010. He leads the Heat in scoring, shooting, rebounding, assists and steals and is generally recognized as the team's best defender. But that sort of control of a team hasn't happened since James did it two years ago when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wade had 18 points Thursday and a few key baskets in the second half that helped finish the Bulls off. But he also was clearly playing rhythm and not lead. He controlled the ball only when James was out. He was the option after James the majority of the time.
Some of this is circumstantial. Wade has missed five games over the past three weeks to rest various injuries. As a result, he's not in perfect sync right now and he looks like the time off has built up a little rust. James, who has taken over at point guard during stretch play without a true 1, is averaging 29 points a game in that same span, his most prolific tear of the season.
Seeing James command huddles, bark orders on the floor and -- as was the case against the Bulls after he recovered from a case of cramps in the fourth quarter -- even put himself back in the game, it's hard to miss the shift that has been taking place.
"D-Wade hasn't been in the lineup as much as he would like to and I've tried to pick up my leadership and my play," James said. "My teammates look to me as a leader. I want to be there for them."
The Heat are 12-1 this season when James plays and Wade doesn't. That's a crucial stat, if only because it means the Heat are still in the hunt for the league's best record even though Wade has battled several minor injuries plus a recent case of dead legs he still seems to be fighting through.
But all those extra minutes with James as the centerpiece seems to have created a new balance of power within the team. It's not something that can be quantified with numbers, but it's there for all to see. The fans see it too.
It's James who gets the automatic "M-V-P" chants now when he's at the line. It's James who gets a cheer when he rises off the bench to go to the scorer's table. Wade is still their first love, no doubt, but James has earned their attention.
"He has a remarkable ability to rise to whatever the team needs the most," coach Erik Spoelstra said.
"Right now he is really giving this team a sense of urgency, particularly after that three-week stretch when we weren't playing where we knew we were capable of. The guys have been following his lead since then. He has been more vocal and it's a good thing. We will need all of our guys, and Dwyane is a captain for a reason."
Spoelstra is right. Wade is a captain and the Heat very likely will need him. It has been proved that James cannot carry a team to a title by himself. Wade has a long résumé of those moments, and James' is spotty when it comes to the postseason.
But Spoelstra is right about something else, too. As the Heat prepare for the playoffs, it's James' lead they have been following. They are winners of their last five games and playing their best basketball since February.
"I'm just being more vocal at this point in the season," James said. "I know what is around the corner for us."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Channing Frye (16 points, five rebounds, two 3-pointers). To be fair, the Suns won with a collective effort from Frye, Steve Nash, Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley. However, Frye's eight fourth-quarter points were vital, and it seemed he always had an answer to any Clippers run.
Defining moment: Robin Lopez's flagrant-2 foul on Blake Griffin with 6:14 left in the game. The game had been somewhat boring and lifeless up until that point, but that play infused life into both teams. The last six minutes were a doozy.
That was a thriller: Down the stretch, both Nash and Chris Paul put their squads in the best possible positions to walk away with the win. There were also flagrant fouls, numerous lead changes and clutch shot after clutch shot. Honestly, what more could you ask for?
Recap | Box score
That was the end: The loss officially eliminated the Rockets from playoff contention. This will be the third straight year Houston has finished just outside the postseason field.
MVP: Eric Gordon made all the right plays at all the right times, finishing with 27 points. Hornets fans can only hope he's back to normal after missing the bulk of the season.
X factor: The undersized Rockets couldn't keep Carl Landry off the boards (10 rebounds, six offensive). The former Rocket also finished with 20 points.
Recap | Box score
MVP: It's turning into a broken record -- every game for the last several weeks LeBron James has been the best player on the floor. He was again Thursday, scoring 27 points with 11 rebounds and six assists. James has been dominant during the Heat's five-game win streak that has pulled them within a game of the Bulls for the top seed with a week to go.
LVP: Richard Hamilton was not the foil for Dwyane Wade the Bulls envisioned in this one. He got into a scrap with Wade and drew a flagrant foul for him but didn't back it up with his play. Hamilton was 1-of-6 shooting and had just six points, two rebounds and one assist.
That was chippy: The teams got into three mini flare-ups resulting in four technicals, two flagrants and an ejection. James Jones was ejected after he blasted Joakim Noah in the face on a play away from the ball in the first half. Wade shoved Hamilton to the ground for a flagrant and both got technicals in the third quarter. Then James leveled John Lucas with a pick and both got technicals afterward.
Recap | Box score
That was chippy: Not long after a Leandro Barbosa flagrant foul on Mike Dunleavy Jr., Larry Sanders started fuming. He got a technical, then another, and started jawing with George Hill while leaving the court. David West sprinted over, and a mini-fracas broke out. Sanders fought to escape his teammates' hold -- only to realize he wanted no part of West once he was free.
MVP: David West. He played perhaps his best game as a Pacer, scoring 21 points on 14 shots to go along with 13 boards and 7 assists. He also stepped in to defend Hill as Sanders started to go bonkers.
Defining moment: Indiana closing out the half. After a strong start, Indiana went nearly five minutes without a field goal. But it soon reverted to its early-game dominance to finish the half up by six. The lead was never again in doubt.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Nikola Pekovic. Jose Juan Barea (13 points, 12 assists) and Anthony Randolph (15 points, 10 rebounds) had double-doubles, but Pekovic (23 points, 9 rebounds) dominated inside -- especially when the game got close.
LVP: Brandon Knight (2-of-12 shooting, one assist in 27 minutes). Knight's struggles, given that he's a rookie, are understandable, but they look even worse considering
X factor: Will Bynum. Bynum didn't play until the fourth quarter, but he finished with 17 points and almost single-handedly engineered a Detroit comeback in the fourth.
3. Thursday's Best
David West, Pacers: Indy clinched home-court advantage in the first round and effectively knocked Milwaukee out of playoff contention thanks to 21 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists from West. According to Elias, he was the first Pacer to hit those marks since Jermaine O'Neal did it almost exactly six years ago.
4. Thursday's Worst
Unintentionally tanking Rockets: Aren't the Hornets supposed to be the ones tanking? After Thursday's overtime loss in N'awlins, its sixth straight, Houston will miss the playoffs by thismuch for the third year in a row.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"It hurts (emotionally). That's the first thing -- it hurts. And then with people saying and thinking I'm quitting on my team. This is a real issue. I tried to play through it and it just made my back worse."
-- Dwight Howard, who will miss the rest of the season after he has back surgery Friday morning.
8. Reach For The Sky
9. Stat Check
Nikola Pekovic scored a game-high 23 points in the Timberwolves' victory over the Pistons. It was Minnesota's ninth game this season (and fifth in a row) without Kevin Love, and the Wolves are 2-7 in those games. The Nets (1-7 without Deron Williams) are the only other NBA team that has lost as many games in which their leading point scorer (for the season) didn't play.
Carl Landry and Gustavo Ayon each came off the bench to grab 10 rebounds in the Hornets' 105-99 overtime win against the Rockets. The last time two Hornets substitutes reached double digits in rebounds was on April 16, 2001, when Derrick Coleman and Eddie Robinson each grabbed 10 boards in Charlotte's win over Atlanta.
10. Dunk Of The Night