Right On Time
SLAM 168′s cover story: LeBron James is doing everything that has been asked of him.
by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17
As the red clock in the TD Garden visitor’s locker room strikes 70 minutes ’til tip-off of one of the biggest games of the regular season—the visiting Miami Heat will be putting their 22-game winning streak on the line against their rivals, the wounded but proud Celtics—a Playoff-level contingent of local and national media shuffle around. LeBron James—shut off from the crowd by his massive Beats headphones but fully on display since the cramped room hosts the training table, too—is getting ready for the game in his own unique fashion.
While Heat assistant Octavio De La Grana carefully tapes the King’s big toes and ankles, Bron pores over rap lyrics on his oversized Samsung phone. It looks like Bron is on Rap Genius, and the object of his study is made clear, aurally. Shouting out every word (save for the truly objectionable ones), Bron rhymes along to Kendrick Lamar’s “Ignorance is Bliss.”
Apparently you’re a parrot
Mocking me and my blueprint
But I won’t share it just make you cop it then call you a sheriff
Stop it, I’m hearin’ the comments
The critics are calling me conscious
But truthfully, every shooter be callin’ me Compton
So truthfully, only calling me Kweli and Common?
Proves that ignorance is bliss
Eat your heart out, MJ.
LeBron doesn’t speak to the press pre-game, so I can’t ask him about the song’s significance right now. I could find some, considering how ignorant many fans and media types have been about the game’s greatest player, but LeBron is ultimately just like other players before games—listening to hot shit on his headphones. He’s not gonna discuss Kendrick Lamar parallels.
Taped up and with Kendrick karaoke complete, LeBron applies lotion to his calf tattoos. Lest you forgot, the one on his right leg reads WITNESS, on his left reads HISTORY.
As you say, LeBron.
Typically, James and his teammates don’t really talk in those terms. This team is all about “one day at a time,” “identity,” “pride” and a host of other coachspeak clichés that Erik Spoelstra has mastered and his team has inherited. Tonight offers a little time of reflection, though. The Heat’s winning streak is already tied for the second-longest in NBA history, and it’s starting to pick up a life of its own. Heat PG Mario Chalmers may tell me that LeBron “always stays calm and takes it one day at a time,” but he’s started to discuss it with the press after recent wins.
What’s more, LeBron probably knows as much NBA history as any current NBA player. Says his first NBA head coach and former Celtic great, Paul Silas, “The thing that struck me most when I coached him was that he really understood the game. He is very smart, as a person and as a player. He was a guy who knew the history of the game and knew the names of the great players who came before him. He used to talk to me about that. That really surprised me because at that time most players knew nothing about the history of the game. I always thought that was phenomenal.”
In a few minutes, the good folks of @nbastats will send the following tweet: “LeBron avg. 26.4p, 8.0r, 7.5a during #HeatStreak. Per Elias, no player before has avg. min. 25.0p, 5.0r, 5.0a during team W strk of >15 gm.”
Of course they haven’t. Honestly, that @nbastats feed could tweet nothing but LeBron stats for a month and it wouldn’t run out of things to say.
But the details are worth reminding yourself sometimes. I get it: LeBron sometimes seems too big for details. He’s listed at 6-8, 250 and is the rare athlete who is probably bigger than the program says. He’s averaged 26.5 ppg, a career-best 8.2 rpg, 7.1 apg and 1.7 spg, shooting a career-best, borderline obscene 55.5 percent from the floor through the first 65 games this season, not missing a single start. “He’s a 3-4-5—6 if that was a number,” Doc Rivers says. “You have to account for him on the glass, too.”
LeBron was featured in this magazine at age 16, declared The Chosen One on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 17. When there’s been a 10-story WITNESS billboard dedicated to a player, it’s hard to remember the word near his ankle. When a guy posts numbers like LeBron does, you tend to forget the “hockey assists,” the backtaps, the passes deflected, the shots altered. Yes, LeBron will dunk on you like nobody’s business (foreshadowing). Yes, he will drop 28-foot three-pointers on your head easier than some of us can make a lay-up. This is the BIG League, right? Sometimes little is hard to appreciate, but I’m trying tonight.
While LeBron’s pre-game prep continues with a fart he pins on “’Rio,” his teammate Dwyane Wade addresses reporters on the challenge tonight, with the Celtics boasting a 10-game regular-season home winning streak against Miami. “We’ve found many different ways to win during this stretch…some we had to come back, some we were losing and had to execute down the stretch. I feel like we’re a lot calmer; we haven’t gotten rattled. Tonight is a great game for us from that standpoint, because in Boston, this team beats you mentally sometimes moreso than physically, and I’d like to see how we respond to that.”
As the clock above the basket hits 8 minutes ’til tip-off, LeBron is going through what appears to be the most concentrated of all the pre-game rituals. While lefty circus shots are being thrown up all over the lane, the game’s greatest player is working on two-dribble pull-ups from the wing. It’s a difficult shot he takes, and makes, with great frequency, and here he is, honing it.
OK, then he takes some spot-up 29 footers from the left wing. For most players, that’s a circus shot. But considering that I count him making seven of eight of those bombs, and that he makes 34 percent of his shots from that general area versus 45 percent from the right wing three-point zone, and the fact that opposing defenses would love to push him as far from the basket as possible, we might just have to call those shots practice, too.
With the pre-game clock at 3:30, we get dunks. A few oohs and aahs from the expensive seats, but not much response. One of the biggest differences from LeBron’s time in Cleveland is this: Back then, fans would say, “I’m going to see LeBron.” Now they say, “I’m going to see the Heat.” Ignorance is bliss, you know what I’m saying?
With the pre-game clock at 2:00, LeBron sits down on the sideline and re-laces his gorgeous LeBron Xs. Side note: Five days ago, Bloomberg.com named him the world’s most powerful athlete. And they’re not talking about his biceps.
“The changes LeBron has made on and off the court have come from him,” Silas says. “He is the one who has always looked at the situation and decided what he needed to do or to get better at. He always had a lot of friends around, friends from high school, and he brought them along and let them run his business, but LeBron is the one who has made the big decisions, and they’ve been great decisions.”
As the overhead game clock hits 5:22 left in the first half, LeBron is on the receiving end of an alley-oop from Norris Cole that he crams all over Jason Terry, who has spoken out of pocket about LeBron and the Heat multiple times in the past. LeBron follows up the flush by stepping menacingly toward the crashed Jet, earning a T for his brazenness. Side note: LeBron may not hold grudges the way MJ did, but he knows who said what.
“The difference from when I coached him in his first two years to coaching against him the last two years was how his teammates viewed him,” Silas recalls. “The other players I coached didn’t look at him as their leader. A lot of them questioned the media, wondering ‘What has this kid done? Why is he getting so praised and why should he be our leader?’ He proved all of them wrong.”
Led by an on-fire Jeff Green, the Celtics are playing inspired and lead 48-37 after the dunk, but the play, which is quickly compared to the DeAndre Jordan destruction of Brandon Knight from a week prior, has the feel of a sparkplug for the Heat. By half’s end, Miami has cut a 17-point lead to 6. Let’s just say Miami is favored in the second half.
And…that’s what it’s all about. The eyes of the NBA were on Boston tonight for the chance to see a great team continue to assert itself over the League and its record books. A franchise once defined by crippling losses to the Celtics can take a 6-point deficit at halftime and feel like a threat to smash the hosts, not the other way around. It’s simple: the worst fears dynasty haters had when LeBron, Wade and Bosh teamed up are coming to fruition. After an adjustment year in ’10-11 (that still should have ended with a ring if James didn’t tighten up), the Heat won it all last year and are favorites to repeat. Oh, and they might just establish a new record for longest winning streak.
“They are acting like Champs right now,” Rivers says.
Says Bosh: “The difference now from years’ past is just knowing our jobs better and doing them.”
Chalmers, sneakily effective as the Heat’s fourth- or fifth-best player (and holy smokes does the quality of play drop off when you get to a second hand), drops a line that should make the aforementioned haters quiver: “We just keep getting more comfortable, getting a better feel for each other and getting better every year.”
The game clock hits 9:06 remaining in the contest; after a brief rest, LeBron checks back in with his team down, 93-83. TD Garden is rocking. Jeff Green is having the best game of his career. The Heat played yesterday in another country. There would be zero shame in losing this game.
Jordan Crawford (funny that he’d have a role in this game!) hits a three-pointer to push Boston’s lead to 13, then LeBron scores on three out of five possessions to cut the deficit to 4 with 5:30 remaining.
LeBron keeps the play-by-play reporter busy with an assist, a lay-up, a foul and another two assists, the dimes coming off skillful kick-outs from the block. He has two of his shots blocked by Green, then makes a lay-up. The Celtics keep fighting, though, and the score is tied at 103-all with under 30 seconds remaining. Miami goes to James again, and he faces up on Green. Instead of a contested shot in the lane, LeBron takes a couple dribbles and pulls up from 21 feet with about 12 seconds on the clock. The move is awfully similar to what he was doing in pre-game warm-ups while teammates were practicing their H-O-R-S-E moves. The shot drops. Little. BIG. He’ll beat you either way.
And then he dances. He has 37-7-12. Some taunting of the fans seems well-earned. Lacking a LeBron, the Celtics cannot match the shot. The Heat win. The 17-point deficit they overcame is the longest of the year for them. Their 10-game regular-season losing streak here is over. The second-longest winning streak in NBA history is now theirs alone.
“Heat went to LeBron in the post on 5 straight possessions down the stretch. They weren’t doing THAT 2 years ago,” tweets NBA.com’s John Schuhmann.
Asked his advice to LeBron on the last play, Spoelstra says with a laugh, “Make a play. Save us.”
“I think you really see growth through tough times, when things aren’t going well on the court,” says Wade in a noticeably exuberant Heat locker room. “I think the first year when this team was put together, we didn’t know each other the way we needed to, to get through those tough times. Now, no matter what, we believe in each other. We believe that we can do it.”
As the clock in the visitor’s locker room strikes 11:24 P.M., LeBron sits down for a one-on-one with SLAM. He’s done the group interview. He’s showered. Like he does on the court, he’s doing things at his pace.
“I felt in training camp like this was going to be a very special season,” LeBron says. “I felt like we improved in the offseason with the addition of Ray [Allen] and Rashard [Lewis] to everyone we had coming back from our Championship run.”
And somehow, a guy with three MVPs improved too? “Oh yeah, I improved,” he says emphatically. “I improved in the offseason. The little bit of time that I had to work on my game when I went back home after the Olympics helped me. The Olympics helped me improve—being around all those great players every day. And then I came back a better player, a more seasoned player, an experienced vet, and that helped me out a lot, too.”
Paul Silas told me, “LeBron does not put himself above the team or other players. He talks about the team and the other players and how important they are. That doesn’t happen often. Guys of his ability usually aren’t able to include other players. He has always joked around and had a good time with everyone on the team, and I always thought it was wonderful.”
Pre-game, the jokes were on display. Now, it’s the team-first attitude. “It’s a little bit different than how I [was viewed in Cleveland],” LeBron says. “The guys on this team, we’ve established ourselves as Champions, and people love winners. It’s great that we can put ourselves up there, and it means a lot for all of us that when it comes to not only myself, but the rest of my teammates—DWade, CB, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Udonis, the rest of the guys—we are noticed as a team and not as individuals.”
As someone close to LeBron pointed out to me, this year is like a unique moment in time. A peak, in a way. Before he won a ring last season, LeBron probably had a hater for every fan. It was absurd in a way, but it was true. He got the title, he got another Gold, and suddenly his shoes are fire, his ads are humanizing, his bike riding is charming. He even spoke up—loudly, and reportedly to great effect—at the Player’s Association meeting over All-Star Weekend. This season, it seems, everyone loves LeBron.
Another ring could continue the lovefest, but too much success can breed more envy, too. Plus, next year will come with rumors of where LeBron will sign when the non-option portion of his contract concludes after the ’13-14 season. Back to Cleveland? Cue the media mayhem.
LeBron is not really one for psychoanalysis. But he will cop to increased responsibility and how he acquired it. “I’ve got a responsibility to represent our League and our players in the right way,” he says. “So, me being one of the top guys, I feel like speaking up is my responsibility, and I have no problem doing it.
“No one mentored me like that. I’ve just come to decisions on my own and with my team of guys that respect what I do, and [the increasingly positive response he is getting from the public] has just come with it. What makes me most comfortable is knowing my family is stable. My fiancée and my two kids home in Miami, my mother, my in-laws. They’re all awesome, and they’re happy and that makes me happy.”
And how does that add up to the best player, on the best team, doing what he does best? “When everything at home is taken care of, that allows me to do what I love,” LeBron says with a broad smile. “And that’s go out and play the game at a high level.”
Sometime before the clock strikes midnight, LeBron and the Heat will be gone. Heading for Cleveland and making plans for what to do on an off-day there. There will be a media circus, but why worry about that? We can write about that stuff next year. Just enjoy what LeBron is doing right now.