HANG TIME, Texas — Whether it’s Friday night in Charlotte, Saturday at home against the Sixers or even Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, LeBron James will be coming back to a different game than he left.
More rough, more tough, more down in the dirt, use-everything-but-the-kitchen sink.
Because it worked in Chicago. Because it’s the only thing that put James on the wrong end of a scoreboard since Feb. 1.
Because the rest of the NBA is desperate.
If it wasn’t already with his third MVP, the 2012 NBA title and an Olympic gold medal, the 27-game winning streak stamped this as LeBron’s time, an era of contentment, fulfillment and waltzing up and down basketball courts to music that only he can hear.
When it got to the level where Danny Ainge was taking shots at his toughness and Pat Riley was responding quite earthily, then the point had already been made. Opposing defenses might as well be shooting spitballs at a battleship.
The only other answer, of course, is to bring him down by any means, which was the path taken by Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson.
James’ response was predictable, a variation of “How Dare They?” that was really no different from the indignant reactions of Michael Jordan when he was soaring above the game.
The irony and hypocrisy is that it was none other than Riley as the Designer Don of the Knicks in the 1990s who built on the Detroit Bad Boys approach and did as much as anybody to have enforcers Charles Oakley, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing and friends try to take a piece out of Jordan when they couldn’t stop him.
Everybody now will poke and prod and push and shove and flat out body slam James to throw off his shot or throw him out his comfort zone.
“We know what’s coming now,” said Miami teammate Shane Battier. “We know that’s Eastern Conference basketball, especially in the playoffs. Teams are going to try to make it a game without spacing, without pace and we’re going to try to do the opposite. We’re going to create a bunch of space and try to create tempo. That’s our strength.
“We know that every other team is going to view that Chicago game as some kind of blueprint maybe. That’s OK. We can play any style of basketball that’s required and I’m pretty sure LeBron can handle himself.”
In the end, that’s all that matters, how James handles himself. When opponents tried to body up Jordan, it only stiffened his own resolve. When anybody took him down to the floor with a bit of extra flourish, Jordan usually got back up and made them pay with a bit of extra mustard mixed with venom.
It is a different game now, one where it’s almost impossible to impede a player on the perimeter without setting off the kind of alarm sounds that accompany airport metal detectors. It’s why point guards have never thrived more at any time in the history of the league than today. The rules have been tweaked and rewritten to put less emphasis on brute strength and more on speed and skill.
The dilemma is that James, at 6-foot-8, 260, has the brute strength to overpower while giving up none of the speed and skill. Until somebody finds a way to put a muscle or two on Kevin Durant, LeBron is a cut above, in a class by himself.
Being so talented makes him singular and makes him a target and in the history of stars in any sport that does not make him special. The other guys don’t come to praise you, but to chop you down.
It’s a fact of life and complaining about a lack of whistles from referees or retaliating with a bull rush at Carlos Boozer will not stop it, only let them know that they’ve gotten under your skin.
Jordan channeled his anger into a raging fury that was belied by that photogenic smile that launched a thousand ad campaigns. Oh yes, we all wanted to be like Mike. But never ever forget that Mike, when provoked, could be a very bad man with a ball in his grip.
“We’re aware of what everybody’s game plan is against us,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They want to prevent layups and dunks and highlight plays at all costs. That can mean hard fouls. We know that.”
Battier views from across the court and across the locker room and sees an awesome physical specimen and a supremely talented player who is finally at peace with who he is.
“I’m pretty sure,” he said, “that LeBron is ready for anything.”
He’ll have to be, since now the plan and the game is going to change.