Greg Cote

Greg Cote: With LeBron James, the best is yet to come

“Don’t take this for granted,” Erik Spoelstra was saying Saturday, pinned against a wall by a semi-circle crush of media on one end of the Heat’s practice court. On the far end, LeBron James, last man on the floor, was still working, shooting, reaching higher, the basketball’s staccato bounce echoing through the gym.

Don’t take this for granted, Miami, because things have never been better than right at this moment. This franchise has never been higher than it is today as a reigning champion coming off a first-round playoff sweep and looking unstoppable, led by the single most dominant, impressive athlete currently working anywhere in American team sports.

He is ours.

LeBron James’ first league MVP trophy sits modestly somewhere in his mother’s house. He got it at age 9, playing football in Akron, Ohio, for a team called the East Dragons. Evidently football defenders had no more luck stopping him then than basketball defenders do now.

“Scored 24 touchdowns in six games,” he recalled, as if it had just happened.

He never stopped scoring, or being better than everybody else. Still hasn’t. His fourth NBA MVP award, all in the past five seasons, came Sunday and will be ceremonially presented to him again before Game 1 of Miami’s second-round playoff opener against the Chicago Bulls here Monday night.

The wonder isn’t that LeBron is the best in the game today, or maybe headed to being the best ever. The wonder isn’t that we should say now with zero equivocation that he is the greatest we have ever had in South Florida, any era, any sport.

No, the real marvel is that the absolute best keeps getting better.

“I don’t know my ceiling. I don’t know where it’s at or how high it is or how close I am to it. I want to push through it,” James was saying Saturday. “I won’t stop trying to improve. I will be better next year. I will.”

This is the framework, as Miami works toward a repeat title and dreams dynasty, that makes you wonder who will step up to challenge the King and his court? Who is able? Anybody?

It sure wasn’t Milwaukee in the first round, and it sure doesn’t look like Chicago is capable now in the second. The M*A*S*H.-unit Bulls could be without their best player, Derrick Rose, while Luol Deng fights through a meningitis scare that required a spinal tap and at least four other players were less than healthy.

The Bulls are so bandaged and hurt that Chris Bosh kidded, “If I had a heart, I’d feel for them.”

The Heat, in contrast, is rested by seven days off between games and as healthy as it has been all season. Dwyane Wade’s right knee is as good to go as it will be all postseason, which is to say not 100 percent, but playable.

On most teams, the status of Wade’s knee would be a fixation entering the second round because on most teams, Wade would be the best player. This isn’t most teams.

Here, it all starts and ends with LeBron.

He is why Miami is a heavy favorite in this round, and will be in the next, and then the next.

He is the singular force such that teammate Udonis Haslem calls it “an honor and privilege” just to share a court with him.

Bosh said James “is playing the best basketball I have ever seen in life. Maybe next year he’ll shoot 70 percent or something like that.”

So why is the best also the last man on the practice court? How does the beast stay so hungry?

“He leaves nothing to chance. He doesn’t rest on his greatness,” says Wade. “But you would not know he’s the MVP of the league. He never boasts about it. ‘I’m just a kid from Akron.’ That’s his saying.”

This South Florida thrill ride began the night of July 8, 2010, when James’ announcement that he would be taking his talents to South Beach kicked off a celebration across greater Miami.

LeBron has not lived up to what we expected.

He has exceeded it.

“Our pinch-me moment was when we actually signed him,” Spoelstra said.

The moments keep coming.

Teammates emphasize what a kind, generous teammate he is when no one is looking.

The selflessness extends to games, where assists bring him more joy than baskets, and where his pride in playing defense brings as much satisfaction as any slam dunk.

The number of Miami’s turnovers and points allowed off those mistakes are the first statistics James looks for when handed a postgame boxscore.

With LeBron leading the way, it was not disingenuous when the Heat kept insisting it didn’t matter if it faced Chicago or Brooklyn next.

“We have an identity that’s not going to change with who we play,” as Spoelstra put it. “We want to impose that.”

Bosh was talking about how confident the team is and how you avoid becoming overconfident by having “that healthy fear.”

One wonders why Miami would fear any team, though.

One would imagine every other team should fear Miami.

That, too, starts with LeBron.

“He has taken his game to another level. Reinvented himself,” Spoelstra said. “We’re grateful we have him on our side. You wonder, ‘How can he get better?’ But he’ll find a way.”

Teammates were kidding James that, with four NBA MVP trophies already in hand now, all he needs is 11 more so he can give one to everybody on the team.

The thing is, the prize James and the Heat are after is much smaller than a big trophy.

It slips on your finger.

“I understand why I’m here,” LeBron said, “and that’s to win championships.”

The greatest player on the planet will lead the greatest Heat team in franchise history onto the home floor Monday night, and those five words bear repeating:

Don’t take this for granted.

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