RIO DE JANEIRO -- One mid-morning this week along Copacabana Beach with the sun already burning the sand, LeBron James ran down the coastline as a real-life Nike commercial unfolded behind him, joggers surprised to see a celebrity lining up to run with him.
Part of the group were Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, two of the young Cleveland Cavaliers who had woken up early for the voluntary workout. James has targeted both of them to mentor since signing with the Cavs in July and part of that enrollment is extra outings such as this one.
Foremost, the Miami Heat are going to miss James' multifaceted talents, his wide-ranging ability to affect games. It is already clear just three preseason games in that, while the Heat have enough on their roster to be a factor in the Eastern Conference, the absence of James' playmaking is a decimating blow to how they play.
But also the Heat will miss what they had such a big part in creating, which is James' leadership abilities. Mike Krzyzewski, James' Team USA coach, refers to the transformation as James finding his "voice." Not just during the moments in the thick of a game but in the spaces in between, where perhaps it is even more important.
This is what was going on this week in Rio, where the focus was understandably on just how the Cavs and Heat would dance around each other. James, though, has had something else on his mind, and that morning run on the beach was just one layer.
The Cavs beat the Heat Saturday 122-119 in a "friendly" as they call it here, though this trip was more about business development and brand construction than anything to do with a basketball. The setting of the game mattered little to James, who has been on four different continents in the last three months anyway.
He had a clear purpose for this week and it wasn't to make nice with his ex-teammates. Though he made sure to do that, leaving Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade with hugs and a promise to see them on Christmas in Miami before he left the floor after overtime. James was working on his side job as adviser/motivator.
On the 10-hour flight to Brazil Tuesday night, James held court with his some of his teammates as they huddled in the center of the first-class section of a chartered airliner. After they arrived, he led an excursion to the beach for some swimming.
Saturday night he was focused on something more elementary but in the same vein. The Cavs had been having some trouble with new coach David Blatt's offense. It's not that it's too complex, it's just different. Blatt runs a modified version of the Princeton offense that is not typical in the NBA and so even the team's veterans are dealing with a learning curve.
James clearly wanted to make Saturday, the Cavs' second preseason game and first against an NBA opponent, a growth day with the offense. The crowd of 15,000-plus wanted to see him dunk and score and he did throw one down in the first half, but James was interested in getting rid of the ball as fast as he got it. Trying to set the tone and get the ball movement going, James acted like it was a hot potato.
In the first nine minutes of the games, James had four assists. In his 20 minutes on the floor he ended up with eight assists, plus several more times where he set teammates up to be fouled.
He shot the ball poorly, going just 2-of-8, and his missed four free throws. He's actually a less-than-stellar 6-of-19 so far shooting in the preseason. But his passing and operation of the offense was a success. The Cavs scored 59 points in the first half and shot 54 percent, a great improvement from what they'd shown before.
"I haven't found my [shooting] rhythm but that is secondary for me right now," James said. "I think our team is finding a rhythm."
On this night that meant Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao. Love is struggling a little bit learning his place and figuring out how to transition away from primary offensive weapon. James' former teammate Chris Bosh drew some attention this week in an interview with the Bleacher Report where he described learning to play with James as frustrating at times because it's such a difference from what he'd been used to before they teamed up in Miami.
James spent much of his time in the game looking to get Love the ball in position to score. After Love took just six shots and scored just eight points in the Cavs' preseason opener against Maccabi Tel Aviv last week, he scored 25 points on a sizzling 9-of-12 shooting against the Heat. James assisted on three of Love's baskets in the first half.
"In talking with the coaches and [James], they told me what they've expected out of me," Love said. "LeBron was trying to help me out there."
As for Varejao, he was playing in front of his home fans and James wanted to allow him to take advantage. In something that won't be typical, the Cavs featured Varejao in the offense at times and he scored 14 points. The crowd, which was largely rooting for the Heat, chanted Varejao's name at one point to get a curtain call.
"I almost cried twice," Varejao said. "I cannot believe I played in an NBA game in Brazil."
When James wasn't in the game he was still working. Several times he summoned Waiters over to the bench while Waiters was in the game and James wasn't to give instructions. He pulled Thompson aside in timeouts.
His latest protégés had good nights. Waiters had 16 points and Thompson had 18 points and nine rebounds off the bench. Despite Kyrie Irving being out with an ankle injury, the Cavs' offense was prolific. It was a lopsided game until the third string, led by Heat rookie Shabazz Napier, mounted a fourth-quarter comeback that forced overtime.
When it was over and another international goodwill trip was in the books, James had a look of satisfaction as he prepared for another long flight. The stress of dealing with his ex-teammates was in the past and his new project had a productive evening, thanks in large part to his nurturing.
Relatively, that 5,000-mile journey back to Cleveland is nothing compared to the season that is just beginning. There will be bad nights to be sure and he knows how to deal with those, too. But for now, he was happy with how his latest lessons had been received.
"I'm making sure we're running fluidly," James said. "Right now, it's making sure everyone else is in a good groove."