Between Damian Lillard's heroics, the flighty Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and clusters of first-round Game 7s, there hasn't been much time dedicated to appreciating LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
Let's change that.
A clean sweep of the seventh-place Charlotte Bobcats didn't teach us anything we don't already know. James is great. Really great. The Heat are good. Really good. They're built for the playoffs, existing only for this time of year, when games matter, championships are at stake and you're only a few victories away from showering in bubbly.
Consider their quick work of Charlotte a refresher of how swiftly they can advance, how dangerous they still are. Use James' play and the Eastern Conference's conflux of mediocrity as a reminder that their path to a third straight championship isn't obstructed by hurdles they can't clear or impeded by teams they cannot flax.
LeBron "Do It All" James
King James took a beating against Charlotte.
He was pushed, whacked and clotheslined. Bodies banged and knees collided. There was a deliberateness to how merciless the Bobcats were.
But for every beating he took, James handed out 10 more of his own.
In four games, he averaged 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and 2.3 steals. No one else in NBA history has maintained said benchmarks through a minimum of four playoff games. He also became the first player in NBA postseason history to tally at least 120 points through four games while attempting no more than 70 shots.
During Game 4, when James could have coasted, he took over, going for 31 points, seven rebounds, nine assists and three steals. He kept attacking, kept pushing. Whenever the Bobcats exhibited faint signs of life, he stepped on their throat.
There were times when James was left grimacing—after he collided with Bismack Biyombo in Game 4, for instance—but he still averaged more than 39 minutes per night. His player efficiency rating (32.8) is the highest of any player who has logged at least 100 postseason minutes thus far, and his 55.7 percent clip from the floor would be the highest of his career if it holds.
More importantly, James is now resting, taking it easy as his Heat prepare to play on.
“The thigh has been better,” James said Wednesday, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. “Obviously, I’m very fortunate and happy that we were able to take care of business on Monday. And I get this week to get it back to where it was before Game 4 started.”
James' durability is often taken for granted. The physical brand of basketball he plays guarantees he'll incur drubbings on his way to the basket or while operating on the block. Some are worse than others, but they happen constantly.
Two other players in NBA history have appeared in at least as many playoff games as James and registered higher per-game minute averages: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. That's it.
Still, he never sits.
If this is what James accomplished through Round 1 while hobbled and facing Charlotte's top-seven defense, what will he do after resting, after healing?
What team in the NBA, let alone in the Eastern Conference, will beat the Heat four times with him playing this well?
For the Nets, that is.
Few should expect the Nets to roll over in Round 2. There are plenty of reasons owner Mikhail Prokhorov is footing the bill for Brooklyn's roster rather than making donations to indigent millionaires who cannot grasp the concept of being worth billions. Most notably, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
The Truth and The Big Ticket aren't in Brooklyn for their smiles, snark or extensive knowledge of leafy seadragons. Despite what happened against Toronto in Game 6, they're not in Brooklyn for their rim protection, either.
Pierce and Garnett are in Brooklyn for series like this, against opponents like the Heat. That the Nets were 4-0 when facing them during the regular season is both typical and bizarre of any team housing these two.
Right here, right now, this is why they're here, as Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick writes:
This was what was ordained when Pierce and Garnett agreed to jump organizations, accepting a trade to Brooklyn just one season after ostracizing Ray Allen for fleeing Boston for Miami. This was what was necessary after the Nets beat the Heat all four times in the regular season, three times by a single point and once in double overtime. This is how Pierce and Garnett should extend their careers, or perhaps even end them.
By seeing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Seeing James, Wade and the Heat will bring out something in both players. Each of them is long removed from their days of superstardom, but the prospect of waging battle with the reigning champs, their archrivals, will trigger emotional windfalls and upticks in intensity.
And yet, while the Nets will pose the greatest threat, that's not saying much. Three of their four wins during the regular season were determined by one point. None of them came by more than nine. Dwyane Wade appeared in just two of them.
This series is still Miami's to lose. Regular-season showings bear no significance now, with Wade actually playing and James dominating. Not even Pierce, king of self-confidence, could avoid raving about the Heat following Brooklyn's Game 7 victory.
"Miami won two championships," he said, via Skolnick. "We're still trying to earn our respect, as a team, as a franchise, as the city of Brooklyn."
The Nets are just trying to survive. They nearly fell to the Raptors, whom the Heat were 4-0 against themselves. And now, after a taxing seven-game series filled with ups and downs, the Nets will journey south to Miami, where the well-rested, James-led Heat are waiting with four regular-season losses worth of chips on their shoulder.
The Clearest of Paths
Championships don't come easy.
Paths back to the NBA Finals don't get much easier than what the Heat are facing, though.
Should the Heat advance past Brooklyn, either the Washington Wizards or Indiana Pacers await. Which one of those teams can unseat Miami?
Not the way it's playing.
Not the way the Heat are playing.
Not the way James left off.
“The best thing about this series is that we improved every game," James told reporters after Game 4. "That was the most important thing.”
Yes and no. The Heat’s victories increased in ease with each passing game; that much is true.
Wade proved both durable and productive. Chris Bosh had a pulse in Game 4. Chris Andersen continues to be a demonstrative X-factor. Norris Cole looks more like Norris Cole than a player on the brink of being ousted from head coach Erik Spoelstra’s rotation. James Jones has been shooting so well, LeBron is already back on defense before his shots actually fall in.
There was so much to like about how the Heat closed out Charlotte, how their chemistry progressed in just four games. But nothing and no one was more important to the team than James, who, just after Kevin Durant’s MVP campaign, began reasserting his league-wide dominance over everyone else.
At one point, perhaps the Heat were vulnerable. There may have been concern that they wouldn’t get past the Nets or Pacers, or whichever Western Conference foe they might meet in the finals.
That concern is gone, supplanted by confidence and certainty, courtesy of James. While Western Conference teams tear each other apart, James has the Heat sitting pretty. Nothing is for certain, but the road back to the finals has never been more barren of obstacles or clear of surging threats.
These Heat have never been more likely to do what they were built to do—win—than they are now.
These Heat have never been more dangerous than they are now.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.