LeBron James created plenty of buzz with his dunking exhibition after practice on Monday. One day later, he gave fans plenty more to talk about with the All-Star Game only a few days away.
James never has competed in the All-Star weekend’s dunk contest and likely never will, but dunks like the one he delivered in the third quarter against the Suns on Tuesday at U.S. Airways Center are why fans will be begging for James to participate in the exhibition until he retires.
James’ windmill dunk on a breakaway was one of his best highlights of the season in the Heat’s 103-97 victory against the Suns. Later, his breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter gave the Heat a seven-point lead and helped put away the NBA’s most surprising team of the season.
“I’m feeling really good right now,” James said. “My legs are starting to come back to me and I’m able to get out on the break much faster right now.”
James had five steals, including two that sprung him for dunks in transition. The Heat had 12 steals overall and forced 16 turnovers for 24 points.
“It helps when we’re able to load our defense and I’m able to be a recipient of guys putting pressure on the ball,” James said. “I was able to get a couple [steals] tonight. We want to create turnovers and put pressure on the ball and pressure on the weak side and, when we have an opportunity, guys shoot the gaps.”
Projected by Las Vegas to win fewer than 20 games this season, the Suns (30-21) are a legitimate playoff contender in the Western Conference, but the defending back-to-back champions extended its winning streak against Phoenix to eight games despite Dwyane Wade missing the game with a migraine headache.
With Wade back at the team hotel, James scored 37 points and Chris Bosh added 21 in a bounce-back effort after losing to the Utah Jazz on Saturday. James was 12 of 22 from the field and Bosh went 8 of 11 from the floor. Overall, the Heat shot 47.4 percent and out-rebounded the Suns 41-36.
Spoelstra said immediately after the game that he didn’t know if Wade would be able to fly, but Wade was later cleared to travel with the team to Oakland where the Heat will play the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. Wade deals with chronic migraines, though he didn’t miss any games last season due to the condition.
“It depends on how debilitating it was,” Spoelstra said on Wade’s ability to travel with a migraine.
With Wade out, Spoelstra experimented with the starting lineup against the Suns and started guard Toney Douglas, who joined the team in mid January. In his first start since 2012, Douglas began the game 1 of 6 from the field and the Heat fell behind 12-0 to start the game. But Douglas settled down in the second half and played well defensively against guard Goran Dragic, the Suns’ emerging Slovenian star.
“I just went out there and did my job and did what I’ve been doing since I got here in practices,” Douglas said. “I’m a little fatigued, but I’m in game shape. I always stay in game shape whether I’m playing or not playing, so I’m be fine for tomorrow.”
Both Douglas and Dragic were shooting 2 of 9 from the field entering the fourth quarter. Dragic finished with 15 points after scoring at least 20 points in seven consecutive games. He was 4-of-12 shooting overall. Spoelstra was pleased with Douglas’ effort.
“Even in the first quarter, if you just look at the score, you don’t think that that’s indicative of the impact that he had,” Spoelstra said. “He really came out with an aggressive disposition…I thought he was consistent both quarters.”
The Heat had 15 second-chance points and scored 46 points in the paint. Just like James’ determined effort inside, those numbers suggest a more focused team.
Mario Chalmers had 13 points and Norris Cole scored 10 off the bench. Gerald Green led the Suns with 26 points and Channing Frye added 15 .
The Suns cut the Heat’s lead to three with less than three minutes to play, but a strong offensive rebound by Bosh led to an 18-footer by James with 2:05 to play. James’ breakaway dunk with 1:13 left put the Heat ahead 96-89.
The teams traded blows midway through the fourth quarter.
A 16-foot jumper by Norris Cole gave the Heat a brief lead at 77-75, but Suns forward Markieff Morris made an 18-footer to tie it. Chalmers answered with a three-pointer, but Dragic countered on the other end with a three-pointer in the corner.
A three-pointer by Ray Allen then put the Heat ahead 87-83 with 6:20 left.
James’ contest-worthy windmill dunk put the Heat ahead by seven points midway through the third quarter, but the Suns tied it at 63-63 on a three-pointer by Green. Green later delivered a breakaway dunk of his own to put the Suns ahead 70-67.
In a nod to his decision to stay away from dunk contests, James called himself an “in-game dunker” after the game.
“I just jump and figure it out,” James said. “Because I’m just running so fast down, I just kind of jump and figure it out from that point, and I’ve been able to finish more than I’ve missed.”