1. LeBron's Night Punctuates Dazzling Run
LOS ANGELES -- LeBron James was ready to go to a birthday party.
"Yo, D-Wade," James yelled across the locker room as his teammates packed up. "Where are we going for your birthday?"
"We're going to the plane to fly all night," Wade said. "Maybe they'll have some cake and music."
It's amazing James would even have any energy left after a mesmerizing stretch of play over four days this week in the West. It culminated Thursday night, when James played one of the more unique games of his career in the Miami Heat's 99-90 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
With all the Player of the Week and Player of the Month Awards that have become routine and so much judgment saved for the playoffs, it can be easy to lose sight of the everyday masterpieces James delivers. He's had three of them just since Monday night, which rescued the Heat from what had the makings of a dismal road trip.
James' fourth quarter Monday in Utah was a showcase of his versatility, playing point guard on offense and center on defense to take over both ends of the court to lead a dramatic comeback that fell just short. Unless you saw it, fighting bigger players in the post and whipping passes through invisible alleys, you probably couldn't appreciate it.
Wednesday at Golden State was a night of history, in which he nailed two meaningful milestones over a span of about 20 minutes and came up just short of a triple-double, even with sitting out the fourth quarter. He needed 18 points to get to 20,000, but the Heat, who had lost three of four, needed a win. So he had the best-scoring first half of the season, putting up 21, and ended the discussion and the losing streak by the half.
Against the Lakers, he had his best overall offensive game of the season and one of the most efficient of his career. In a statement on just where Dwight Howard's health is at this point, James relentlessly attacked the Lakers' interior and teamed up with Wade to put on a highlight show with fast breaks after forcing turnovers. He made seven layups and six dunks, overall shooting 15-of-16 in the paint as he scored a season-high 39 points.
"Oh, incredible performance; he does that consistently, though," said Kobe Bryant, one of the rare players like James who can assemble so many sublime performances that they're easy to dismiss as routine.
"He's just a phenomenal player. He's one of the best we've ever seen."
Bryant had a good fourth quarter himself, scoring 13 points as he tried to lead a comeback. Wade had 27 points on his 31st birthday in one of the most explosive nights of his season, featuring his own series of basket attacks against the Lakers' tall but slow front line. The Heat piled up 68 points in the paint, shooting 34-of-48 in there by virtually ignoring Howard's and Pau Gasol's challenges.
Both Bryant and Wade are future Hall of Famers and neither of them came close to James, just the latest reminder of where the three-time MVP is in his career. At this juncture in history, he has challengers but no any longer any true peer. This week was just the latest example for the file, even if it is in danger of being forgotten when James has another "good" week.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn't even focus on all the James mastery around the rim. He pointed at a play, with five minutes left and the game tied, that he called the best of the Heat's six-game road trip. James, who had been switched to defend Bryant, challenged a jumper that Bryant missed. Then he dove on the floor, scooped up the loose ball, got to his feet, raced to the other end, attracted a double-team (the Lakers couldn't fathom giving up another dunk by then) and then kicked the ball to Ray Allen for a 3-pointer.
"That epitomizes what LeBron James is all about," Spoelstra said. "That's the best player in the league throwing his body out there in harm's way to come up with a big rebound."
That play, even though it felt big at the time, will probably mostly be gone from the memory banks by the time the playoffs start. James does these things so often, the short-term memory can't keep up. Gone, too, will be those dunks and vicious layups the Lakers were helpless to stop, replaced by some other athletic feats as James storms toward a fourth MVP.
"I don't take it for granted," James said. "When I'm back on the floor, back in uniform, I've just got to do my part."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: LeBron James was simply fantastic. He controlled every aspect of the game for the Heat, making key shots, playing great defense, creating offense for his teammates, and controlling the final minutes of action expertly on both ends of the floor. His line of 39 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds was as dominant on the floor as it looks on paper.
X factor: With the Heat applying pressure on defense, the Lakers committed 16 turnovers in the first half and 20 for the game. Meanwhile, the Heat turned those miscues into 23 points and were able to keep the game close even though they struggled to produce points in the half court.
That was ... a great finish. In the final eight minutes, both teams traded baskets with the stars showing their greatness. But with the game tied and 2:32 left, the Heat executed on possession after possession to close out the game. Down the stretch, they showed why they're the reigning champs.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Larry Sanders, ever the Suns-destroying presence, scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for the Bucks. He didn't record a block until he rejected Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola during the final two minutes of a close game.
X factor: Monta Ellis had 14 points heading to the fourth quarter but scored 10 points in the fourth with a number of tough midrange fadeaways to pull the Bucks back into the game.
Defining moment: Mike Dunleavy drilled a 3-pointer with a minute to play that extended a five-point Milwaukee lead to 94-86.
Recap | Box score
MVP: The Clippers bench. Led by Jamal Crawford's 3-point shooting and Ronny Turiaf's energy (plus his 5-for-5 shooting night), the Bench Mob throttled the Wolves. They averaged a plus-11 on the night.
X factor: The Wolves' terrible shooting. All year, the Wolves have struggled to make every kind of shot imaginable. They got solid looks all evening, but still knocked down just 35.7 percent of their shots. They bricked 3s, dunks and everything in between.
That was ... damn unpretty. Without Chris Paul and with Ricky Rubio still struggling, there was no one to give this choppy, physical game any flow. The Clippers booted the ball all over the floor; the Wolves blew layups; it was pretty ugly.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Tyson Chandler took a particularly nasty, frightening spill on the break in the second quarter via a flagrant foul by Austin Daye, but he returned unscathed, dominating the glass (14 rebounds) and anchoring New York's interior defense.
X factor: The whippet-quick combo guard, Will Bynum, was the only thing standing between Detroit and a truly epic thumping. Coming off the bench, he got to the rim at will to net a robust 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting.
That was so ... Shump: Much to the delight of Knick fans, in his first game since suffering a torn ACL in last season's playoffs, Iman Shumpert was inserted into the starting lineup, showing little rust or diminution of his considerable athletic gifts.
3. Thursday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: In the rarefied air of the levels of LeBron's game, this performance ranks up there. Makes 17 of 25 shots en route to 39 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 3 steals against a Lakers team with something to prove.
4. Thursday's Worst
Lakers turnovers: Not going to beat many teams with 20 turnovers. Kobe Bryant had six and Steve Nash four, perhaps reflecting how much each wanted to make things happen a little too much.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I felt better than I was the last couple of games. I'm back eating right, eating what I'm supposed to be eating."
-- Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, after dropping 26 points on the Pistons. He recently ended a two-week fast.
8. 31 Flavor
9. Stat Check
Milwaukee won in Phoenix for the first time in nearly 26 years on Thursday, by a 98-94 score. Its last win in Phoenix was on Feb. 21, 1987, when the Bucks' starting five for Don Nelson's team was Jack Sikma, Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey, John Lucas and Sidney Moncrief.
Entering the game, Phoenix had the second-longest current home winning streak by one team against another. San Antonio has won its past 27 home games against Golden State (and the Spurs host the Warriors on Friday).
Between Nelson's win and Jim Boylan's on Thursday, nine Bucks head coaches lost in Phoenix during the streak: Del Harris, Frank Hamblen, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Ford, George Karl, Terry Porter, Terry Stotts, Larry Krystkowiak and Scott Skiles.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Erik Spoelstra, Heat
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talks about LeBron James' commitment to defense, Miami's struggles on the road this season and more.