LOS ANGELES — Truth be told, LeBron James didn't really want to be here. None of them did. It never made much sense, a viewpoint that Dwyane Wade—among others—made clear to Adam Silver last month, when the commissioner-in-waiting visited the Miami Heat. Silver promised the players that, if they won another championship, they would be home for the next Christmas.
"Great incentive, huh?" James quipped prior to Miami's mostly uneven but occasionally electric 101-95 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. "Growing up, I thought that was a rule. I don’t know if it was a rule, but I just thought that was like given. I don’t remember ever, besides, I guess, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen M.J. play on the road on Christmas. Maybe in the Garden, maybe."
Michael Jordan did spend one Christmas at Madison Square Garden, in 1986, when James was a shade under two years old. But the Chicago Bulls weren't coming off a championship. Jordan lost to the New York Knicks that day, then never lost again on Christmas, not in five tries, all at home—Jordan averaged 28.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists on that stage.
"I always thought if you win a championship, you kind of get some perks," James said. "But we’ve been on the road, we’ve definitely been on the road. But it’s alright. Whatever."
Wednesday, James shrugged off that slight with more ease than he moved in the NBA's absurd special-edition sleeved shirts, missing seven of his eight shots outside the paint. "It's definitely a different feeling," James said. "Every time I shot it from the free-throw line, or shot a jumper, I felt a little tug. Maybe I'll go up to a bigger size the next time we wear 'em, or I'm not going to tell you what the other alternative is. For me, I'm not a great shooter, so any little error that goes on can affect my shot."
It didn't affect the outcome, as Miami advanced to 22-6 on the season. After losing his first Christmas game, like Jordan, James has now won seven straight of these made-for-TV events, including four with the Heat, three of those four on the road. Wednesday, he didn't face his most challenging opponent, as the Lakers started four players who combine to earn $4.2 million, which is less than James alone makes in a quarter of the season. Nor was this his most dominant performance; he missed six of his last eight field goals, and four of his nine total free throws, in finishing with 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists, leaving his Christmas averages at 26.8, 6.8 and 7.8, respectively.
Still, it was sufficient, thanks largely to Chris Bosh's second-quarter scoring binge (13 of his 23), Dwyane Wade's fifth straight game of 20 or more points and four three-pointers from the ageless Ray Allen.
And, still, it was memorable, because it can't be anything else when James plays.
"He's smack in the middle of his prime, physically, mentally, emotionally," Erik Spoelstra said prior to tipoff.
Wednesday, there was a bit more artistry, even as James finished with force.
The first came in the first quarter, after James stole a lazy pass and fed Wade, who took two dribbles and flipped it back over his head, for James to flush with the right hand. Several seconds later, the Staples Center crowd, which has seen plenty of highlights over time, was still buzzing.
The second, in the second quarter, may have been the superstars' finest collaboration ever.
Let them tell you about it.
James: "Anytime D-Wade gets on the break, I just try to chase him down. I'm not sure if he's going to go in for it, or if he's going to throw the lob to me. I had no idea what he was going to do. He was looking at me."
Wade: "I had no clue what I was going to do neither. When you've got a guy who can jump the way he jumps, and his ability to catch almost anything, it makes it easy for you to just say, alright, I just try to get it to him. I tried to throw it off the left side, because I knew he was running down that sideline."
Wade stumbled toward the baseline before he released.
"He went off the glass, and the only way I could catch it was with my left, so I had to improvise," James said.
Lifting off his left foot.
Slamming with his left hand.
What's left for them to do?
"He made an unbelievable catch," said Wade, who punctuated the play by screaming at his friend Kevin Hart, sitting in the front row. "And a nice dunk."
Those two plays alone made the day, and almost made up for the absence of Kobe Bryant on court for the other side. Bryant's presence was felt, of course, as he held a pregame press conference to discuss his latest injury (a fractured knee), and shared a moment with James after the game.
"Just two guys, man, that got much respect for one another," James said of their brief conversation, which included a pat on Bryant's back.
They are on different points of the athletic arc now, six years apart, with James in the sweet spot, and Bryant trying to squeeze a little more out.
Does James, five days from turning 29, ever worry about his own basketball mortality?
"Me?" James said. "Nah, nah, nah. For me, I just try to live now, live in the moment. The man above knows how much time He's going to give me in this game. Once He decides I don’t have any more time to give, then I’ll call it quits."
Later, he added: "We all know Father Time is undefeated, but you just try to slow it down, I guess."
Father Time is no slouch.
But, at the moment, not nearly as terrifying as LeBron James in transition.