NEW YORK -- Watching the 6-foot-8, 250-pound LeBron James routinely look as fresh in the fourth quarter as he does in the first, it's fair to wonder if it's possible for the four-time MVP to tire. Monday would have been the night to do it: Game 4, on the road, up 2-1 against a desperate opponent led by a longtime nemesis who would sooner step over him than ever consider helping him up. With Dwyane Wade providing little (15 points) and Chris Bosh less (12), the offense shifted entirely towards James, a burden piled onto his broad shoulders for 44 grueling minutes.
In another life, James may have wilted under that pressure. In this one he shined, delivering a performance for the ages: a 49-point statement that stamped a 102-96 win over Brooklyn and moved Miami one win away from advancing.
So many superlatives are attached to James these days, but on Monday one attribute stood out.
"He's indefatigable," said Erik Spoelstra. "Is that how you say it?"
Indeed. For all his marvelous talent, James is a supremely conditioned athlete. The Nets sent waves of defenders at James on Monday, from Paul Pierce to Joe Johnson, Mirza Teletovic to Andray Blatche. None were effective. James attacked the basket relentlessly, powering over double and triple teams, refusing to be denied. When Brooklyn rotated players in and out, James stayed on the floor. Midway through the fourth quarter, Spoelstra asked James if he needed a break. He shook him off, and Spoelstra rode his star the rest of the way.
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Sitting in front of his locker, a pair of ice bags strapped to both knees, Shane Battier pointed to Ray Allen's vacant spot two stalls over.
"That guy and LeBron are the two best conditioned guys I've played with," Battier said. "Hands down."
Much was made of Paul Pierce's request to defend James before Game 2, and make no mistake, James was keenly aware of it. There is no love lost between Pierce and James, bitter rivals who have done this dance before. Pierce, the Celtic, was responsible for ousting James from the playoffs in two of his last three years in Cleveland. When James moved to Miami, his Heat bounced Boston in two consecutive years. Pierce claims there is nothing personal between the two stars, that his disdain for James is limited to the time the two spend battling on the court.
But Pierce and James will never work out together like James and Kevin Durant, or discuss teaming up when both hit free agency next summer. James's constant complaining irks Pierce, as does his belief, league sources say, that James once tried to recruit Doc Rivers to Cleveland when Rivers was coaching the Celtics.
Now Pierce, at 36, is in the winter of his career, incapable of consistently summoning his old strength. Physically, he is no match for James's raw power. When James saw Pierce in front of him on Monday, he pushed him deep into the post. When the ball moved, James forced Pierce to grapple with him in the paint. Half of James's 24 field goal attempts came in the paint. Of those 12 attempts, he made 11.
"We can't allow a player like that to be in the paint all night," said Kevin Garnett. "Shoulda, coulda, woulda's won't help us at this point."
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One more game, one more win, and now Miami is on the cusp of returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. They know they have some work to do before they get there. A superhuman performance from James was enough to beat Brooklyn, but the Heat will need more against an Indiana team rapidly rediscovering its early season identity. Bosh made a critical three on Monday but the stroke that was a powerful weapon against Charlotte has largely abandoned him in this series. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole combined for eight points on nine attempts while Rashard Lewis, firmly in the rotation this series, went scoreless for the second game in it.
The beauty of James's game is that he won't force offense, won't abandon his teammates because they aren't making shots. Bosh missed two straight three's in the final two minutes, yet there was James in the final minute, swinging the ball out of a double team that eventually landed in the hands of Bosh who connected on a three that broke the tie at 94. That shot gave Miami a lead that they wouldn't give back.
"That's a play he has been criticized many times for in the last three years, for making that type of play that led to a hockey assist to CB," Spoelstra said. "He was fantastic tonight. He just has a way of sensing what we need."
Durant wrestled the MVP away from James this season, but this night was a reminder that when James is on, there is no one better.
"All everyone else had to do was chip in, hit timely shots [and] do timely things when he is going that way," Wade said. There will undoubtedly come a time when Miami will need more than just James, but on this night, James was more than enough.
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On Monday's SI Now, Host Maggie Gray and Matt Dollinger break down potential 2014 NBA Finals matchups selected by the Twitterverse.