1. Year Without Peer: LeBron Wraps Up 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The year started with LeBron James popping the question. By the time it ended Monday night, he had firmly answered many of his biggest critics.
So what does James do for an encore?
"I'm going to do a little skiing," James joked Monday night about preparing for yet another gold medal.
Making a run at the 2014 Winter Olympics while also duplicating his success from the most rewarding calendar year of his career might be the only way James surpasses all he accomplished in 2012.
Otherwise, nothing else he does the rest of his career will come close to matching the past 12 months. Between his midnight marriage proposal on New Year's Day 2012 to longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson and putting the finishing touches on Monday's overtime win against the Orlando Magic, James has been on a relentlessly magical ride.
In a one-year span, James' résumé additions included his third regular-season MVP, his first Finals MVP, his first NBA championship, a second Olympic gold medal and the honor of being named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.
"I can't top 2012," James said. "I don't have the Olympics, for one. I'd need the Olympics to be every year. All I can do is go out there and play the game I love each and every night, put myself in position to succeed, and be who I am as well off the floor."
Even as the final hours of 2012 ticked away after the Heat's 112-110 win at the Amway Center, James said he still hadn't had a chance to truly reflect on how big of a year it's been. The months seemed to transition like one fast break after another for James, who celebrated his 28th birthday Sunday and went back to work Monday to rescue the Heat.
Much like in the way of reflection, there's been little time for rest for James, who delivered 36 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and nearly every big play the Heat needed over his 48 minutes to hold off the short-handed but feisty Magic. In the process, Miami rebounded from consecutive double-digit losses in Detroit and Milwaukee and avoided its first regular-season, three-game losing streak since last January.
Struggling to beat a 12-19 Orlando team that's rebuilding in the post-Dwight Howard era and was missing three of its best players doesn't qualify as a significant step forward for Miami. But it did allow the Heat to close out the year on a winning note, even if several of their warts on both ends of the court continue to be exposed in stunning fashion.
But James also continues to be Miami's ultimate equalizer.
His 36 points, including 10 of the Heat's 13 scored in overtime, allowed Miami to withstand a Magic franchise-record 29 rebounds from center Nikola Vucevic as Orlando simply pounded the worst rebounding team in the league.
James' 15-of-16 clip from the free throw line helped to cover for teammate Dwyane Wade, who missed seven of 10 foul shots, including three critical ones down the stretch.
When James needed to get others going early, he responded by setting up Ray Allen and Chris Bosh for baskets as they combined for 39 points on 16-of-24 shooting from the field. All of this was done as James never got a rest in the second half and overtime period, pushing through aches during some stretches in the game and sheer exhaustion.
Two nights earlier in Milwaukee, James made a rare move by asking out of a game because he was physically spent. But he never raised his hand for a break on Monday. Instead, he kept asking for the ball and making plays.
It was that way all game.
It's been that way all year.
"I don't know if this league has had a player like that in a long time, who is able to flip the switch -- going from facilitating to scoring, then rebounding and defending," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Whatever the team needs, he instinctively reads it and then does it. He makes it look a whole lot easier than it is. But we needed every part of that. When we needed guys to get going, he got Ray going. He got Dwyane some easy buckets. But then, he stepped up big when he needed to score in the second half."
It was fitting that James was eating a big bowl of home-cooked gumbo, a postgame team meal courtesy of Allen's mother, in his locker after Monday's game.
He had a bit of everything going yet again.
"That's why he's great, why he's who he is," Allen said of James. "We rely on him to do a lot. But with that there's a lot of responsibility, and he accepts it."
The only thing James failed to do in 2012 was step back and contemplate all that's happened, all he's done.
"Haven't had time," James said. "I hear it and have been fortunate to have some very key moments in my life. I haven't really had time to sit back and really look at everything. But it has been a good year. I know that and I will never take this year for granted."
But James' 2013 calendar is already filling up quickly.
He's got another set of rings on his agenda.
One in June if the Heat repeat as champions.
The other in the early fall, likely September, when he closes the deal with his fiancée on their wedding day.
"You know I haven't forgotten about that," James revealed to ESPN.com about his preliminary wedding plans. "I've still got a lot more to take care of in 2013, man."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Nikola Vucevic had the game of his life, finishing with 20 points and 29 rebounds (both career highs) in the first 20-20 game of his career. His 29 rebounds set a Magic franchise record (the previous record-holder was Shaquille O'Neal, who had 28 rebounds in 1993).
Defining moment: Trailing 108-106 with 17.7 seconds remaining in overtime, Orlando had possession with a chance to tie or take the lead. But J.J. Redick threw an errant pass that was intercepted by Dwyane Wade, which led to a dunk on the other end and effectively ended the game.
That was ... an instant classic: In front of an announced crowd of 19,311 at Amway Center, the largest crowd ever to see a Magic home game, the Magic and Heat engaged in a thrilling duel on New Year's Eve that went down to the wire.
Recap | Box score
MVP: D.J. Augustin played wonderfully in this one, producing 17 points on just nine shots and going 4-for-7 from 3. Augustin also went 4-4 from the line in the game's final 30 seconds to ice it.
LVP: Darrell Arthur. Marc Gasol left with five fouls with 7:00 left and Memphis needed Arthur to step up. Arthur did not. Bad fouls, bad shots, moving screens and turnovers plagued Arthur's time and hurt the Grizzlies immensely.
X factor: The already-solid defense of Indiana (especially Paul George and Roy Hibbert) picked up seriously in the fourth quarter, forcing steals, blocks and generally inefficient shots, and Memphis scored only 16, allowing a Pacers comeback.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kemba Walker. Charlotte's dynamo lead guard absolutely stuffed the stat sheet in this one. The 18 points, 8 assists, and even 4 steals are relatively commonplace; but 8 rebounds and 2 blocks, too? Walker was awesome all around in the Bobcats' big win.
LVP: Joakim Noah. A player known for his infectious energy and undying will to win should always glean a positive impact on the game, but Noah was completely invisible in Chicago's embarrassing loss. His teammates followed suit, too, playing with his same lifeless style.
X factor: Jeff Adrien. The undersized journeyman made impact plays throughout the game, including a thunderous, one-handed dunk in the second quarter. But Adrien came up biggest when it mattered most, drawing a charge and hitting three of four free throws after Chicago intentionally sent him to the line in the game's deciding minutes.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Carlos Delfino. Despite great games by James Harden, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, Delfino quietly stole the show with 22-4-8 on just 10 shots (and no foul shots or turnovers). The term "unconscious" comes to mind.
X factor: Omer Asik. Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson noted at halftime that he loved having a rebounder like Asik who could start fast breaks. In a wild, high-scoring Houston offense, Asik's contribution to the transition game was huge.
That was ... turbulent: Once the Rockets built a lead (on a wild run), the Hawks never quite came back. But the Hawks and Rockets traded runs and dazzling athletic sequences on both ends and solid shooting all night.
3. Monday's Best
Nikola Vucevic, Magic: The least-heralded center in the Magic-Lakers-Sixers swap did something even Shaq never did in Orlando -- pull down 29 rebounds. The 22-year-old Montenegrin also had 20 points in his team's overtime loss to the defending champs.
4. Monday's Worst
Rudy Gay, Grizzlies Missed 14 of his 17 shots in an 88-83 loss on the road to Indiana. The West-contending Grizzlies have now lost three of their last four as they begin a stretch where they play four of their next five on the road.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I put the playbook in the freezer and just let our guys go at them."
-- Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap, on his approach with his team tied 65-65 heading into the fourth quarter. His team proceeded to snap an 18-game losing streak, beating Chicago.
8. Ending Year On Positive Note
9. Stat Check
LeBron James averaged 27.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game in December while making 55 percent of his shots from the floor. Only two other players in NBA history reached all those levels in a calendar month in which they played at least 10 games. Wilt Chamberlain did it in February 1967 (28.6 PPG, 25.8 Reb/G, 8.9 Ast/G, .721 FG%) and Larry Bird did that in March 1987 (29.7/9.8/8.3/.555).
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Tony Parker. The Spurs point guard continued his scoring run with 20 points against Brooklyn on 9-of-13 shooting. He also had six assists to just one turnover. Parker's night was masterful in comparison to Deron Williams' performance of eight points and one assist.
Defining moment: Well, the Nets scored five points in the third quarter and committed seven turnovers. I'll take it one step further and throw in that the Spurs out-assisted the Nets 11-0 in the third. That's your blowout right there.
X factor: The one thing that kept the Nets in the game in the first half was offensive rebounding. Brooklyn grabbed six offensive boards in the first half and while the Nets converted only five second-chance points, it at least kept San Antonio from having the ball for a few more seconds.
MVP: Russell Westbrook was simply superb Monday, with 24 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds. An inadvertent elbow, and subsequent bloody face, forced him to the locker room, but he returned midway through the third and gave the Thunder the spark they needed to put Phoenix away.
X factor: With Westbrook in the locker room, it was up to Reggie Jackson to run the show for the Thunder. The second-year point guard did an admirable job, notching four points and six assists, and perhaps most importantly, committing only one turnover.
That was ... bloody: Russell Westbrook took a Luis Scola elbow right above the eye, causing blood to run down Westbrook's face. It was, to say the least, not a pretty sight.