PHOENIX — A little more than 90 minutes before tip-off, the status of LeBron James was still uncertain. With Dwyane Wade already ruled out for the second straight game with a foot injury, Miami may have been in trouble if James too was unable to go.
Thankfully for the Heat, James found a way to push through.
While he wasn’t quite his usual self, a half-healthy James is better than most at 100 percent. He finished with 21 points, seven rebounds, a few assists, and a couple of steals, while playing almost 41 minutes in the Heat’s 97-88 win over the Suns in Phoenix.
“Well look, he doesn’t miss much,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “I can’t even remember the last time he’s missed a practice or a shoot around. So when he missed today, obviously that makes you wonder, and you know that it’s pretty serious. We knew yesterday that he hadn’t had any food, so he went through the whole day. In the late afternoon he was starting to be able to keep down Gatorade but that was about it.
“He said it was no hesitation, that he’d never leave those guys out there. But it was a little bit in doubt with us.”
How effective James would end up being on the night was in doubt as the game got started. He began with eight first-quarter minutes that were devoid of any statistical contributions, save for a rebound and a turnover, as he tried to involve his teammates early on. He then had to leave the court to head to the locker room, as he began to feel weak once again.
“Yeah, I got a little sick,” James said of his first quarter trip back to the locker room. “So I came back here to just try to get a little more fluids in me.”
Shane Battier knocked down a few wide open threes in the first, and Chris Bosh was big with 16 first-half points. But whatever nutrition James was able to get during that brief intermission paid immediate dividends.
James played the entire second quarter, and got himself going with a few jumpers and some trips to the free throw line. But as the game wore on, he picked his spots, and was able to close the game out when his team needed him the most.
This game was largely a sloppy one from both teams at times; Miami played loose with the basketball to the tune of 19 turnovers, while the Suns weren’t much better with 17 of their own. Both teams were able to put together sizable runs that swung the game in their favor for short bursts, but neither team could keep it going for a long enough stretch to pull away before the game’s final minutes.
Phoenix came back from seven down with three and a half minutes to play, cutting the Miami lead to just two after a huge steal from Goran Dragic and a layup in transition. The Suns had a chance to tie on a jumper from Michael Beasley, but after it seemed to be just about all the way down it rimmed out, and Bosh converted two free throws to push the lead to four.
After Sebastian Telfair missed a five-footer in the lane off the back of the iron, it was closing time for Miami. And James was the one who had the ball in his hands.
As the Heat held onto that four-point lead with under a minute to play, James dribbled down the clock above the three-point arc, before making his move and driving to the basket. He spun around Marcin Gortat as if the Suns center was standing still, and calmly laid the ball in to seal the win for his team.
What made the performance from James on this night so memorable is that the outcome of this single game in November is ultimately so forgettable. For the defending champions who will measure this season’s success based on what happens five or six months from now, James could have easily sat this one out, and no one would have thought any less of him, even if his team were to have suffered a loss.
But as we know by now, James is a special player who feels a responsibility to his teammates to be out there if at all possible — even in a relatively meaningless game taking place so early in the regular season.
“It takes a lot for me not to play, for me not to be out there with my teammates,” James said. “Me at 50 percent or 60 percent is better than me not playing at all, and I was able to get a little bit of rest this early morning and afternoon. I didn’t have much energy but I wanted to be out there on the floor with my guys, and I’m happy I was able to make a couple plays to help us win.”