LeBron James is soaring higher than ever before.
There appears to be no end to the dominance.
Or the acclaim.
LeBron James has simply never had a stretch like this.
Few, if any, in NBA history have had stretches like this.
Since early in the fourth quarter against Toronto on Feb. 6, James has taken 65 shots.
He has made 49.
That's 75.4 percent from the field.
"That's pretty cool," James said.
That's ridiculous, and just the latest accomplishment in a remarkable season.
James is shooting 56.2 percent from the field, good for seventh in the NBA and by far the best of his career. He is fourth in the NBA in scoring (27.0), 26th in rebounds (8.1), 11th in assists (6.9) and, perhaps most surprisingly, 18th in three-point shooting (42.1 percent).
Oh, and he's still playing some defense, too.
“I mean, it’s just sensational. At his size, I think what’s important that he’s added to his game is his ability to square up and shoot. He seems to have a lot of confidence in that jumper, which opens up the rest of the game for him."
Erik Spoelstra had a message for Miami fans:
“I say this to Miami fans: don’t take it for granted. He’s making greatness look easy.”
But is this his greatest season?
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post.)
LeBron James's spectacular 2010-11 died against Dallas.
All anyone remembers was the end.
LeBron James looking confused, distant, passive.
Pulling up on breaks.
Choosing not to shoot.
Letting the little likes of J.J. Barea impede his progress.
Averaging just 17.8 points in the six games of the NBA Finals, never topping 24.
James never completely explained what occurred after the Heat took a 2-1 lead in this series, and why he shriveled to something so much less than himself. But the real shame of that struggle, other than the Heat's failure to capitalize on a championship opportunity, was that it rendered all he had done prior irrelevant.
And James had a special season under the circumstances, facing more scrutiny than any athlete in memory in the wake of "The Decision" to join the Heat. It was a season unlike any other, as James recently noted when asked to compare the microscope now on the Lakers.
“Nope. No, no, no, no. No one will ever be able to compare it to what we went through. Even though they’re not winning, and they’re losing of lot of games, that level of magnitude is nowhere near to where ours was two years ago. Nothing. Nothing compares to it,” James said.
Even while uncomfortably adopting the villain role, James still posted strong enough numbers to finish second in MVP voting to Derrick Rose.
He recorded the highest shooting percentage (51.0) of his career to that point, and averaged 26.7 points and 7.0 assists even while adjusting to sharing ball-handling duties with Dwyane Wade. He produced five 30-plus-point games in the first three rounds of the playoffs, as Miami eliminated Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago by winning 12 of 15.
Then came Dallas, against which he fell apart, and the Heat fell short.
No one on the Pistons could control LeBron James in Game 5.
It would be enough to say "Larry Hughes."
The guard was the Cavaliers' second-leading scorer during the 2006-07 season, playing the second-most minutes on the squad while shooting an even 40 percent from the field.
That team, which also featured an aging Eric Snow and a limited Sasha Pavlovic playing prominent roles, had no business beating a deep, experienced Pistons team that featured several former champions.
But the Pistons didn't have LeBron James.
And, with the Eastern Conference Finals tied, 2-2, the 22-year-old pretty much beat them on his own.
James scored the Cavaliers' final 25 points, and 29 of 30, in a double-overtime victory.
"I was making a lot of great moves," James told reporters. "They are definitely a great defensive team, but I was determined to attack."
And attack. And attack.
The Cavaliers dominated Game 6, even with James going 3-of-11, to advance to the NBA Finals.
There, they found the Spurs, and no luck.
James shot just 35.6 percent in the Finals, and Cleveland got swept.
Still, that shouldn't sweep away what he did to get the Cavs that far.
A brilliant season included a Game 2 winner against Orlando. But it was downhill from there.
LeBron James was almost too good for his own good in 2008-09.
His Cavaliers team, which had Mo Williams as the second "star," won 66 games.
It won 27 of them by 15 points or more.
That contributed to a drop of 2.7 minutes per night, and yet James still kept most of his averages (points, rebounds, assists) close to the lofty numbers of the season before.
He shot 48.9 percent from the floor, his second of what would be six straight seasons of improvement in that category. He shot better (78.0 percent) from the line than he had before or has since.
He won his first regular-season MVP award and led his team to the postseason as heavy favorites to advance out of the East, with Nike even producing a series of puppet commercials anticipating a clash between James and Kobe Bryant in the Finals.
Then came those playoffs.
Then he got better.
He had games of 47, 49, 41 and 44 points.
He had averages of 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists, while shooting 51.0 percent from the field.
He had little assistance, with no one scoring even half as many points over the course of the postseason, and no one capable of slowing down Dwight Howard in the Eastern Conference Finals.
He had too little left for Game 6, when Howard scored 40 and Orlando moved on.
And he nothing to say after, skipping the postgame news conference in frustration.
This season, LeBron James has had plenty to smile and scream about.
A fourth MVP clearly appears in order.
But even if LeBron James secures that, for his sublime play over the whole of the 2012-13 regular season, he knows by now that its significance will fade if he and his team flop in the playoffs.
That uncertainty is the only reason to hold off on declaring this James' finest season.
By most of the statistical measures that matter, he is playing at a higher level than in any season before.
"A level rarely seen," Lakers guard Steve Nash said.
And Nash is a two-time MVP.
As the game has appeared to slow even more for James, he's become virtually unguardable, taking the shot he wants rather than the one an opponent would prefer. He has even turned a previous weakness into a strength -- after never shooting better than 36.2 percent from three-point range, he is now connecting at a 42.1-percent clip.
Defensively, he hasn't been quite as dogged for all four quarters as in 2011-12, but he's still shown the ability to stifle opponents at all five positions. He's still handling the ball down the stretch, daring defenders to leave Ray Allen or Shane Battier or Mario Chalmers. He's rebounding better than ever, pressed into extra duty on the backboards by the relative size deficiency of this Heat squad.
"It just seems like the weight of the world is off his shoulders now that he has won a ring," former teammate Antawn Jamison said. "He can just play."
That play has led Dwyane Wade to declare that "he's off the planet right now. He's not even the best basketball player on the planet. He’s surpassed the planet, somewhere else."
Still, for this to rank as James' best season, his team needs to be on top of the basketball world again in June.
No matter what else he does, he'll never forget his first
About damn time.
That was LeBron James' appropriate exclamation after winning his first NBA title—and with it, the NBA Finals MVP—in his ninth NBA season.
And yet, in the context of just the 2011-12 season, it all actually happened rather fast.
Each NBA team played just 66 games, due to the lockout, and played them at a lightning pace, sometimes with five in a single week. James started 62 of them for Miami and, in a testament to his youth and conditioning, played almost all of them at a fever pitch, with an incremental increase in efficiency from his first season in Miami and such versatility that his coach, Erik Spoelstra, nicknamed him "1 through 5."
That earned him his third MVP.
That earned him another opportunity to finish, in the face of doubts due to the previous postseason.
That meant rallying the Heat back from a 3-2 deficit against Boston—which meant shutting up the Beantown crowd with 45 points in Game 6. Series done in seven games.
That meant holding off MVP runner-up Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City to hoist the trophy. Done in five games.
James had actually averaged more points in two prior postseasons, but no one will remember that statistic. They'll just remember the smile, the appropriate capper of his career's greatest masterpiece.
To that point, anyway.