OKLAHOMA CITY — It has never been easy for LeBron James to make himself invisible. So maybe this was as close as he'll ever come, sitting in the corner, towel over his head, arms folded, revealing part of his face—including two plugged nostrils—only to sip slowly from a small water bottle.
The Heat's media relations had made it clear that James would not address reporters, so Dwyane Wade was first for a change. Wade was asked whether he'd spoken to his fellow, strangely silent star in the 15 minutes since the conclusion of Miami's complete 103-81 victory against the West-best Thunder.
"Yeah, he's sitting right over there," Wade said, looking a couple of seats to his left, laughing. "He talks to me. Yeah, he talks to me."
And, in truth, James had already spoken plenty to the press and public with his play, prior to taking a Serge Ibaka shot to the nose halfway through the fourth quarter. So too had his teammates, in avenging a Thunder rout in Miami in late January. They had loudly let it be known, once more, how lethal they can be, when all are available, energetic and unyielding, as they raised their record against the top eight West teams to 10-2 this season.
Long before James' nostrils would leak, they flared, as he extended his strongest stretch of the season by scoring 14 points before his all-planet counterpart, Kevin Durant, tallied a single one.
"Flawless," Wade said.
James made his first 11 shots from inside the arc, pummeling an array of defenders in the post, assaulting the rim in transition, flashing the silky fadeaway and even finding time for the floater.
He mixed in an occasional long-distance heat check, and while a couple of those attempts were overly ambitious, they were promising in one sense: They are starting to show less obsession with preserving his field-goal percentage at all costs.
Even some of his carelessness (a season-high eight turnovers) could be tolerated because it emanated from his aggression. And while he couldn't come close to winning the NBA MVP on this night, he made sure that he came no closer to losing it, which is what would have happened had Durant dominated him in the second game of a season sweep.
"The MVP race is a long, long way from over," Wade said.
It sure appears so, with James averaging 37 points on 61.2 percent shooting, all while defending like a demon, in his past four games.
Thursday, his MVP competition didn't often look like even the second-best player on the floor. Bothered by Shane Battier and missing 11 of his first 17 shots, Durant was outplayed by Wade.
The Heat guard had an encouraging burst, for sure, but he also showed some of his ever-evolving "old-man game," using the hesitation dribble and other tricks to get where he needed to go. He finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists, all-around numbers that once were the norm but now draw notice in light of his assorted ailments.
Did he realize how close he came to a triple-double?
"No, I was just playing," Wade said. "I just knew that I was active, trying to help rebound. I knew I was getting my teammates shots. And so I just knew I was doing everything in the ballgame. That's the Dwyane Wade I know, and I like to see on the court. So I'll just have to continue that."
If he does, some of the chirping may cease, at least for a spell. It was Durant, after all, who questioned whether Wade still belonged in the league's top 10, which prompted Wade to post a scribbled "note to self" on Instagram and drew a "show me, don't tweet me" response from Durant.
Reminded of the latter on Thursday, Wade laughed.
James did no such thing.
He was too busy rubbing and shaking his aching head.
That was a result of that fourth-quarter fall.
With a 14-point lead, James pounded the ball at the top of the circle, split Russell Westbrook and Ibaka, and soared to slam it down over Ibaka's seemingly endless outstretched arm.
He hit the mark, recording the two points, but also got hit in the nose. That sent him sprawling backward over the baseline. He stayed down there as Durant traveled on the other end, rolled over to reveal bloody streams on the white "N" of Thunder.
"I'm like everybody else," head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You're used to seeing him like Superman, and get up and sprint back, even after tough hits and tough falls. So you knew something was up."
The Heat trainer, Jay Sabol, raced over, as did teammates and the rest of the coaching staff. Eventually, he rose to cover his face with a towel, and Wade was among those who walked him past the bench, as he trudged back to the locker room.
He took a concussion test, which was negative, and Spoelstra said that he would take an X-ray later. And since it didn't seem that serious, teammates were free to grouse (that there should have been a foul) and marvel at the play itself.
"He got hit in the face and goes up and still finishes," Chris Bosh said. "But you know what, he's the best, biggest, strongest athlete in the league. Only he can do that."
Few teams can do to the Thunder in Oklahoma City what the Heat did Thursday.
And so they were in good spirits as they headed to the airport, the official end to a trip that—for the All-Stars James, Wade and Bosh—started on Feb. 3 and took them to seven cities.
Yes, even James.
Because eventually he surfaced to post this:
Speaking of Bane, the villain told Batman in The Dark Knight Rises that he was wondering "what would break first, your spirit or your body?"
In James' case, neither.
Just, at most, his nose.