NEW YORK -- Is it possible for a two-time defending MVP to be overlooked?
Somewhere in the maelstrom of hate LeBron James stirred the moment he announced his "decision," the fact was lost that no player can bend a game to his will like James.
After leading the Heat to 113-91 win over the Knicks on Friday night, everyone in and around the NBA got a reminder that despite the change in uniform and perception, James is still the league's preeminent talent.
In front of a celebrity-filled Madison Square Garden sellout that serenaded him with boos every time he touched the ball, James shaped the Heat's 11th-straight win with a jaw-dropping triple-double (32 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) that showed fans in New York that merely chanting Amar'e Stoudemire's name isn't enough to anoint him the MVP.
Crucial to that picture, James eschewed the score-first displays he showed in previous New York visits to play the role of offensive facilitator Pat Riley originally envisioned when he flashed his title rings in James' eyes last July. In compiling a plus-nine for the first quarter and a game-leading plus-31 for the game, James kept the ball moving, be it to a big man under the hoop or Carlos Arroyo behind the three-point arc. That isn't to say he has grown into the Magic Johnson-type player Riley desires -- 32 points in 23 shots attest to that -- but he demonstrated the importance of flow and creativity Stoudemire can't and Wade didn't.
"LeBron was really dialed in," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "He made some possession-saving plays on one end and really carried us on the other. When he's making that mid-range jumper it really opens up everything." Open as in 10 assists. Open as in Miami shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and 55.6 percent from three. Open as in guiding the Heat out of a 57-57 halftime tie to a turn-out-the lights 33-17 advantage in the third quarter.
Games like Friday night likely won't win over a fan base and media populace turned sour by his wrongheaded summer. And truth be told, much as James' fall in the eyes of the public as a brand was self-inflicted, so too has been his fall from the ranks of MVP candidates. The still-unexplained stamp he put on the Celtics playoff series last spring. Abdicating leadership of his own team to join a squad captained by Dwyane Wade. The decline his numbers have taken this season while trying to find a comfort level with his All-Star teammates. These transitions may eventually lead to the multiple titles he promised over the summer, but none have come easily.
Nor are they complete.
Far too often, the Heat reminds us of the mid-90s Neanderthal era of the NBA, when great players worked together by getting out of each other's way rather than getting the ball to each other. (No surprise with a prime architect of isolation basketball, Pat Riley, pulling the strings in Miami.) Isolating Dwyane Wade to work at the top of the key while James stands unguarded -- and unpassed to -- in the corner may work against defensively impotent teams such as the Knicks, but are candy to the defensive powerhouses Miami is sure to meet in the playoffs. (See: Celtics, Boston).
The potential that is the Superfriends concept is best realized when the three work with each other, when they draw defenses and kick to a more open teammate, not when they overpower them with their individual brilliance.
With the ball in his hands Friday, James demonstrated that again and again. In the second quarter, James almost stumbled to the floor on a drive before whipping a behind-the-back pass to Erick Dampier for an uncontested dunk. In the third quarter, with the crowd at full force and the Knicks up two, James hit a three before ripping down a rebound two possessions later and leading a break he finished with a rifle pass to Chris Bosh for a layup. A few minutes later, with the game swinging Miami's way for good, James started the offense from the corner with a pass to Wade at the top of the key, leading to another pass at the opposite corner for an uncontested three by Carlos Arroyo.
"He was getting the ball and controlling the pace of the game," said Chris Bosh. "He was kicking it to the open guy and just being the playmaker that he is."
Those abilities that made him the pot of gold more than half a dozen teams all-but-embarrassed themselves to grab this summer aren't easy to remember amid all the third-person references and self-serving justifications for his move to South Beach. That doesn't mean the talents he took to Miami are gone; they just need the right situation to flourish. Friday in New York, with the world watching, they did again.