Miami Heat’s LeBron James is free to be great

With a first NBA title in tow, a more confident LeBron James enters this season’s playoffs as the most efficient player in the league.

04/21/2013 12:01 AM

09/08/2014 6:35 PM

LeBron James and the Miami Heat delivered a regular season unlike any other in the history of the NBA. These are going to be some fun playoffs.

“This postseason, I’m excited,” James said.

This time last season, James wasn’t so much excited as he was consumed by the idea of winning his first championship and redeeming himself for the flop of 2011. James won his title, which seemed to unlock some kind of hidden level of greatness tucked inside his being. Hidden level? Yes, watching James this season was very much like watching a video game played by the deft fingers of a teenager.

In other words, whatever James wanted to do on basketball court, he did. As Pat Riley put it on the eve of the playoffs, winning his first championship “freed” James.

“Really freed him,” Riley said, “to take it to another level. Whatever level that is that he can get to, you may not have seen it.”

If James can somehow play better in the postseason than he did in the regular season, then this thing is already over — gift-wrap the Larry O’Brien Trophy right now — because what James accomplished during the Heat’s 66-win season truly was a first for the NBA.

James has always been an unstoppable force offensively, but this season he set a mark of efficiency that is a new standard for an NBA regular season. James shot 56.5 percent from the field (the best shooting percentage of his career) while also making 103 three-pointers. He is now the only player in NBA history to shoot at least 55 percent while making 100 or more shots from behind the three-point arc.

“It’s a historic regular season,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “We may never see numbers like this and a performance like this on both ends like we saw this year.”

But James’ greatness this season was more than just a story about himself. As immensely athletic and skilled as he is, his true talent might be making his teammates play not only better, but better beyond what would be possible without James on the court.

It’s no coincidence that in the best season of his career, the Heat set a record for team field-goal percentage. Miami shot 49.6 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from three-point range this season, both franchise highs.

Before this season, the best shooting percentage in Heat history was in the 2004-05 season when the Heat shot 48.6 percent from the field. The previous record for three-point shooting percentage in a single season was in 1995-96 when the team shot 37.9 percent from behind the arc. The James-led Heat obliterated both marks.

“Anyone who can make me look good, give that man an MVP award,” Battier said.

And James made Battier look very good this season. He led the team in three-point shooting percentage (43.0). James not included, Battier was one of two sharpshooters to set career highs from three-point range. Mario Chalmers was 40.9 percent from distance. Other players had career years shooting, as well. Dwyane Wade shot 52.1 percent from the field. Chris Bosh shot 53.5 percent.

“I take pride in being able to attract attention from my teammates, which allows them to be in their comfort zone,” James said. “And my putting a lot of pressure on a defense, I put two, three defenders and I’m able to spray the pass out to my shooters or find D-Wade cutting on the baseline or find [Bosh] in his spot. I take pride in just being an attention difference.”

It’s a given that the league will award James his fourth MVP award in five years in May. He was the most valuable player for the first five months of the six-month regular season.

But James is not only the best player in the league. He’s also arguably the best teammate.

“It means everything to me,” said James of his teammates’ career years. “It’s just who I’ve been my whole life. And I understand that I’ve received a lot of individual accolades, and I’ve received a lot of press and stuff of that nature, but the success of my teammates is always No.1 on my list.”

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