LeBron James' Mask Hides Miami Heat's Real Story vs. New York Knicks

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterFebruary 28, 2014

Steve Mitchell/USA Today

MIAMI—All 'round the rounded locker room, players were prompted for their perceptions of the black mask and the man who wore it so well. Norris Cole used the word "swag." Mario Chalmers called it "something special." Dwyane Wade considered the "element of surprise" to be "pretty cool."

And Shane Battier creatively compared LeBron James to "Kato from Green Hornet. All he needed was a driver's cap, and he's Bruce Lee." 

Yet, amid all the comparisons, context and comedy in the Heat dressing quarters following Thursday's 108-82 victory against the Knicks, it was left to Michael Beasley to contribute an existential element to the conversation. Beasley was changing two stalls over, minding none of his own business, when Chris Bosh proclaimed that "if you want to wear a black mask and look crazy, you should do it," and added that "it's awesome, he played like Batman out there." 

To which Beasley interjected, "What does Batman play like, though?"

What a shame we'll never know, not unless, in one of his Dark Knight sequels, Chris Nolan has the Caped Crusader take his black boots to Gotham's blacktop for an open run.

But we do know what James plays like, even while nursing a recently-broken nose, and even when the basketball world is worrying that he'll be irritated and inhibited by a foreign object over his face:

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Alan Diaz/Associated Press

He plays like himself.

"It made him look... different," Wade said. "But it didn't stop anything. He came out shooting the ball very well early in the game. So it didn't affect him." 

No, it didn't, nor more than it did when he played 15 games with a heavier, transparent mask in 2004, one that covered his wine and gold Cavaliers headband. He averaged more than 26 points during that stretch, and he scored 31 in 37 minutes on Thursday, with 11 of his field goals coming inside the paint, and 10 of them within five feet. 

"Every opportunity he had to attack the paint, he did," Erik Spoelstra said.

In fact, he did so more than he normally does, as if to make the point that he wouldn't allow the accessory to interrupt what has been his most assertive stretch of the season. He did so after making a statement of another sort, a fashion one.

"It went with the uniform," James said, explaining the color. "We were wearing our throwback uniforms, and I was able to get a carbon fiber one, which is actually lighter than the one that I'd been wearing in practice. And it came through in the last minute, so I went with it." 

He'd been bothered by nasal congestion during the past week, and been breathing mostly out of his mouth. Neither appeared to bother him on the court Thursday. While he got hit a few times, the mask provided a sufficient shield, enough for him to declare its use "a success."

Nor was his peripheral vision a problem on a tough-angle layup in the opening quarter. James did say that sometimes he saw the mask before he saw a player, but "for the most part, I was able to get in a good comfort zone and make some plays. I just tried to forget about it. Besides when it got hot a few times." 

Instead, he and the Heat stayed hot, with Dwyane Wade dazzling for a third straight game (10-of-13), the defense stopping everyone but Carmelo Anthony (29 points) and Miami doing what it didn't do earlier in the season: dominating a doormat as it should. 

Yes, it's easy to forget everything else when a nose is leading the news, but the Heat are quietly starting to turn into the terror of the late winter and early spring of 2013. They've now won six straight, and nine of 10, to close out February. Spoelstra's subtle tweaks to the defensive system, making it more selectively aggressive, have taken hold. Wade's rolling. And some of the role players—notably Mario Chalmers—are playing much better ball. 

"We're in a good groove right now," James said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't want to continue it." 

Everything is starting to appear as it should—except James' face on the court, which looks a little like Hannibal Lecter. James is resigned to wearing the mask for a couple more weeks. Which means that the public will wear out this storyline. Already, Amazon has turned it into Mardi Gras marketing.

"As much I don't like it, I've got to figure out how to make it work," James said. 

That's not exactly an existential endeavor. But it will do. At the moment, the Heat seem to have the answers to everything else. 

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