In his third season with the Miami Heat, LeBron James has averaged fewer field goals per game and more assists than he did his first two years in South Beach.
Many — his coaches and teammates included — have argued that James could average upwards of 40 points a night if he made it his sole effort to score. And while that number may be a slight exaggeration, the completeness of James’ game has turned him into more of a decision-maker than ever before, and the results have been astounding.
One of James’ first decisions in Friday night’s 104-94 win had nothing to do with basketball. Early in the second quarter, James found himself in the open court and saw Bulls center Nazr Mohammed “hawking” him down. After trying to defend himself, James threw an apparent elbow into Mohammed, causing the 7-footer to fall to the floor. Mohammed got up and shoved James to the floor, causing both teams to scuffle.
But as the referees and both head coaches came out to break up the scuffle, James simply reached up and grabbed teammate Ray Allen’s hand to get off the floor.
“It definitely surprised me that he pushed me like that. But whatever, I’m here to play basketball. I don’t really get into the extracurricular of things. I mean too much to my team to even get involved,” James said. “If I get kicked out and Nazr Mohammed gets kicked out, they win. It’s that simple, so I’m not even going there.”
Mohammed was ejected after the referees reviewed the play, while James was assessed a technical foul for the elbow.
[WATCH: Mohammed 'disappointed' in ejection]
Whether that single play sparked the league MVP after a slow first quarter — for his standards — the night became James’ following that play.
Jimmy Butler has played near-impeccable defense against James in the series, but he hasn’t done it alone. With Luol Deng still recovering from a spinal tap, the Bulls have made an effort to double James inside 15 feet and to give considerable help whenever James is in the open court. While James has faced these same situations most nights, he rarely sees it against as fierce and active a defense as the Bulls.
And James knows this. What could be mistaken for a lack of aggressiveness or intensity, James picked his spots throughout the night, knowing when to drive, when to find open teammates and when to trust his jump shot.
“I didn’t shoot the ball like I’ve been shooting all year, but my teammates look to me to make plays, no matter if I’m shooting the ball well or not,” he said.
James took on the role of a distributor throughout much of the first half, attempting just six shots while handing out four assists. In the third quarter he went on the offensive, scoring five points but continuing to struggle from the field, making 2-of-6 shots in the quarter.
And though he admitted to forcing a few jump shots late in the shot clock in the fourth quarter, his decision-making in the final stanza made all the difference for the Heat, who scored 34 points on 53 percent shooting in the frame.
James opened the period with an assist to Bosh for a tie-breaking 3-pointer, and after connecting on two free throws to give the Heat another lead, found reserve Chris Anderson inside for a layup. And with the Heat nursing a three-point lead, James found a cutting Dwyane Wade for a dunk and a third assist in six fourth-quarter minutes.
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The assist totals were a positive — he finished with seven — but his one turnover in 44 minutes was a number he was just as proud to see.
“That’s the first thing I look at, is my turnovers. I hate turning the ball over, and against this team they force a lot of turnovers,” he said. “And Jimmy is really good on the ball, so he tries to make you force turnovers. To have the seven assists to the one turnover means I’m playing some pretty good basketball offensively.”
From there, the clutch factor took over as James nailed a silencing 3-pointer from the left wing to extend Miami’s lead to seven with 2:39 to play. Two possessions later his circus layup-and-foul gave the Heat a nine-point lead, 99-90, sucking the air out of a United Center crowd that had booed him all night.
After four late free throws, James’ final line included 25 points — including 10 in the final three minutes — to go with eight rebounds and seven assists. He shot just 6-of-17 from the field but made his last two, and finished a perfect 11-of-11 from the free-throw line.
In a year that has seen him become a decision-maker more than ever, his successful choices were on display in Friday night’s key win. He began the night by deciding to let cooler heads prevail when emotions ran high, and ended it with timely assists and impressive baskets to push the Heat to victory.
“We’re playing for something big and you’ve got to keep your composure no matter what’s going on,” Wad said of James. “And he takes a lot of hits, a lot of different things, but he understands that we cannot lose him, so I thought he did a great job of coming back and getting aggressive right after that. And that’s all he can do.”