BROOKLYN -- The night before they made something of a mess in one borough, the Miami Heat made quite a scene in another.
Wearing masks of assorted crazed characters—from The Joker to The Predator to Hell Boy to Leather Face—the Heat set out to scare up a tasty meal at Tao in lower Manhattan.
"Someone behind us asked if we were going to eat with our masks on," James said prior to Friday's 101-100 loss to the Nets. "We took them off at some point, though."
So James appeared at the Barclays Center not as Michael Myers, terrifying killer of the Halloween series, but as himself, terrifying killer of purported NBA contenders.
Or so we thought.
But James isn't yet in his most frightening form, and that was evident again Friday, as the Heat lost a second straight game for the first time since Jan. 10. It was evident even while he produced another solid stat line: 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while making 11 of 19 shots. That came after he produced 25 points, four rebounds and 13 assists, while hitting 9 of 17 in Wednesday's stunning loss in Philadelphia. Those numbers are exceptional for anyone else.
But No. 6 doesn't look quite right yet.
Against the 76ers, James struggled down the stretch, missing five of his final six shots while committing two late turnovers. Against the Nets, he didn't assert himself early, making his first shot with 2:45 left in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he appeared winded, and throughout the first three quarters, he passed on early offense and other attacking opportunities, picking up his dribble and passing out.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that he seemed to summon his customary, legendary energy, going at four Nets defenders and sinking a four-footer on Miami's first possession, on the way to scoring 13 points (6 of 7), plus three rebounds, two assists and a block in the final 12 minutes. His passion pushed the Heat, as they sliced a 12-point deficit all the way to one, getting no closer due to Ray Allen, of all people, missing a free throw he meant to make, and Chris Bosh making one he meant to miss.
"That's kind of the way the night was going," Erik Spoelstra said.
The Heat go as James goes, more now than ever, even though Dwyane Wade did have some juice after a one-game absence. Following that game in Philadelphia, James had forecast that it might take a couple of weeks to get into prime regular season condition.
"I think I lied to myself in Philly," James said Friday night, when reminded of that prediction.
"I felt excellent tonight," James said. "I felt excellent. I didn't come out in the second half, I don't believe."
He played all 24 minutes.
"I got tired once," James continued. "I got tired one time, I caught my second wind, and I was good for the rest of the game. Every game is different. In Philly, I couldn't catch my second wind. And when I did, it burnt out quick, so I was like, wow, let me give myself a week or two. But tonight, I felt in midseason form. I didn't get tired much in the second half. I mean, I played 42 in Game 3. And I feel great now. I could have kept going. We'll see what happens. Every game will be different, every week, but I felt good tonight."
That's great news for the Heat, because it's apparent how much they'll need him at his best, as soon as possible. Miami's limitations showed against the Nets—Udonis Haslem appeared overmatched inside, Mario Chalmers missed four layups, Chris Andersen was a couple steps slow on several defensive rotations. And so on.
The warts showed in a way they never did against Brooklyn last season, before Billy King, flush with owner Mikhail Prokhorov's fortune, fortified the roster.
It's not just about Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce either. The bench upgrades—Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, even Alan Anderson—allowed the starters to rest, with all playing between 20 and 31 minutes, and with Andray Blatche (who traditionally gives the Heat trouble) capably spelling the foul-plagued Brook Lopez.
That kept Pierce fresh for the finish, when he did just enough to keep the Nets ahead.
So the Heat are 1-2, after three straight slow starts.
"We're kind of catching the game and seeing what happens instead of getting right into it," James said.
Later, he added: "We've just got to have a little more sense of urgency. We're good, but we understand what we need to fix and correct."
He needs to get his wind, so he is free to play at his most fearsome.
If he got any closer Friday, a close loss might have been a win in disguise.