NBA: LeBron seeking second MVP
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — LeBron James bobbed his head to the familiar beat, grooving to a chant that has become the backing track to his splendid season.
As James waited at the free throw line inside noisy Quicken Loans Arena, Cavaliers fans, who worry about how much longer they’ll be able to call Akron’s most celebrated son their own, saluted him with the same sing-a-long they use in Los Angeles, Miami or Denver to serenade their stars.
Only in Cleveland, the chant is a fact.
Before shooting, James pursed his lips and nodded approval to every shouted letter — in rhythm, in agreement. MVP.
Most valuable last season. Most valuable this one, so far.
With a still-improving game, James has seemingly moved into a class by himself among the NBA’s elite. None of the league’s other megastars, whether it’s Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony, is presently dominating games at both ends of the floor like James, who seems to be having the time of his life while doing it.
It’s his league. Fans know it. He knows it. His teammates and coaches know it. Everyone does.
“He’s been the best player for a while now, hands down,” Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “I’ve been around him so long, I kind of take him for granted.”
Easy to do. After a scorching January in which he led the Cavs to a 12-3 record and the league’s best overall mark at 38-11, James entered February averaging 29.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists, ungodly numbers that only three players — Oscar Robertson (5 times), Michael Jordan (once) and James (twice) — have reached for a full season since 1950.
Taking his stats one step further, James, now exhibiting the kind of shutdown defense that raised Jordan’s profile, is shooting better than 50 percent from the field and averaging one block per game. According to STATS LLC, no player has ever done that.
Bigger. Faster. Stronger.
James has pushed beyond what many thought were his limits.
“Wow, I don’t know if he has a ceiling,” Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis said, exhaling after some deep thought. Rambis, who played against Jordan, was teammates with Magic Johnson and on the Lakers’ coaching staff with Bryant, said James has become almost impossible to defend.
“It’s scary for everybody around the league that he’s improving his jump shot,” Rambis said. “He’s just so fast and explosive that if you’re not directly in front of him, if he gets you anywhere on his side, you’re toast. He has the ability to explode and get to the basket, penetrate, finish and distribute the basketball.
“You don’t imagine anybody finding a way to stop him.”
That’s evident every time James performs his trademark, pregame powder ritual and takes the floor. James just completed perhaps the best 10-game stretch of a career still on the rise. In three of those games, he outshined Bryant, Kevin Durant and Wade by making clutch shots and last-second defensive stops as the Cavaliers increased their lead in the Eastern Conference standings.
Against that power trio, James averaged 35.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and left no doubt that he’s determined to win another MVP trophy.
In the closing seconds against Oklahoma City, James darted across the lane to block Durant’s potential game-winning layup. To do so, James had to jump over falling teammate Anthony Parker, who was defending Durant, and elevated high enough that he caught Durant’s attempt on his way down.
Two nights later in Miami, James and Wade engaged in a first-half game of H-O-R-S-E, combining for 37 points in the second quarter alone. They dueled down the stretch, close friends guarding each other in an epic game-on-the-line showdown that went to James after he stole a pass by Wade, made two free throws after a scary fall, and, after telling Cavs coach Mike Brown he didn’t want help on Wade, forced the Heat’s guard into a miss as the horn sounded.
Out with a shoulder injury, Cavs guard Mo Williams had a front-row seat for the drama. He’s seen James’ greatness and is convinced it’s growing.
“He won MVP and he’s not resting on that,” Williams said. “Every accolade he gets pushes him to the next thing. He looks at guys like Michael Jordan who has won championships and multiple MVPs. That drives him and gives him momentum to get there. I’ve seen the growth in one year. The level he’s playing at now is tremendous. It’s every night. Even nights he doesn’t shoot well, we’re still winning. He’s doing other things: rebounding, defending.”
Even coaching. James has become an extension of Brown’s staff. He’s constantly instructing teammates, sometimes with a simple hand motion to set up a play and other times with an earful of harsh criticism if he doesn’t believe someone is pulling their weight.
Jordan was the same way. He demanded much from his teammates and got it. James wants the Cavaliers to match his intensity.
“He’s being a lot more vocal and continuing to be more dominant,” Cavs guard Daniel “Boobie” Gibson said. “Everything he does, he has something in mind, whether it’s taking a shot or making a pass. He has complete control of the game and the team and when a guy’s out there like that, follow him.”
Brown, in his fifth year with Cleveland, usually begins any comments about James by shaking his head or adjusting his glasses. It’s difficult finding new ways to describe a masterpiece he sees every day. Brown can’t remember James being this good, and believes he hasn’t reached his potential.
“Which is scary,” Brown said. “It’s kind of crazy to say this, but he can play even better than he’s playing now. All these guys are big and strong and when you can have somebody separate themselves the way he has, especially a perimeter player, and physically take over a game at both ends, it’s mind-boggling.
“You wouldn’t think it could be done that way. You would think somebody would be able to outquick people and you might have trouble trapping them or kind of jump over people because they are long and athletic or be able to shoot the heck out of the ball. He’s doing all of that — and more.”