LeBron James pulled his jersey up over his mouth as he spoke to the players on the Miami Heat bench late in the fourth quarter of Cleveland’s Christmas day dud on Biscayne Bay, keeping the lip-readers out of the conversation. He id the same thing after the game ended when he spoke with Dwyane Wade, but his efforts at stealth could not elude the ESPN microphones.
One snippet that was audible to the world was James saying he was making “like Steph Curry” when he pulled up from 30 feet and launched a pair of 3-point attempts late in the fourth quarter. One went in, one didn’t, and the Cavaliers went back to their locker room with their 11th defeat in 28 games. They are the fifth-best team in the East right now.
Not what we were expecting, eh?
The TV cameras were all over LeBron yesterday as he made his return to Miami, and his smile was not so much infectious as it was quizzical. What are you so happy about, L? The past month has brought a 29-point loss to the best kept secret in the league, the Atlanta Hawks, a season-ending injury to Anderson Varejao, a revolving door starting lineup that has exposed the Cavs’ need for a guy like Ray Allen (sorry Mike Miller, but a 2-guard you are not) and a team personality that can be as dysfunctional one night as it is electrifying another night.
We’ve seen an eight-game winning streak and a four-game winning streak, but also a four-game losing streak and … hard to believe this next one actually happened, a loss to the New York Knicks on opening night. We are eight weeks into the new era in Cleveland, and we are four days away from the end of LeBron being a 20-something. He turns 30 on Dec. 30.
One other thing the microphones picked up was James telling the Heat players “three more times” — the number of dates the clubs share on the calendar going forward. So there is a part of James that knows what this Christmas game meant: virtually nothing in the big picture. James is in December mode, something we got used to seeing the past two seasons when he was still playing for Miami. The 82-game season is a slog, the winter is a time to endure, not to blossom, and whatever happens in April, May and June makes the events of the previous months irrelevant.
Well, in my book, the irrelevancy will take a night off on LeBron’s birthday when he travels to Atlanta to take on the Hawks. The teams have played twice already, and the Cavs won the first one by 33 back on Nov. 15. Since then, the Spurs of the East (betcha didn’t know they lead the NBA in assists) have gone 16-3, including 14 Ws in their last 15 games, with the last five (going into Friday night’s game against Milwaukee) against the Bulls, Mavs, Rockets, Cavs and Clippers. They enter the weekend a half-game behind the Raptors for first place in the East. Presumably, they are drawing both black and white fans.
They’ll have a sellout on LeBron’s birthday as he plays his first game as a 30-year-old, and I’ll be watching for one thing: Are you going to wipe that smile off your face, LeBron, and make some kind of a statement on your big day? Yes, we all know it is December. But statement games can happen in December, too, and the unsolicited advice from this far-flung corner of the sports journalism world is this: Start your 30s like you want to end your career with seven championships, not the two that you put on your resume in your 20s. Earn your way back onto this list.
On to the rankings.
1. James Harden, Rockets: Went off for 44, including 31 in the first half, against the Blazers, giving him three 40-point games this month and a league-leading 11 30-plus games. Remember back in the day when the words “pure scorer” were synonymous with the words “Kevin Durant”? Not so much this season, eh? The thing to watch for over the next couple of weeks will be how many shot attempts Harden loses to Josh Smith, who never met a shot he didn’t like and never learned how to subjugate his ego for the betterment of the team. J-Smoove is joining a team that has overachieved more than anyone in the West given the amount of time Dwight Howard has missed and, as any chemist knows, it is risky to add a combustible ingredient to a well-balanced formula. (LAST EDITION: No. 2)
2. Stephen Curry, Warriors: As he himself said late Christmas night after a loss at Staples to the Clippers, it is important to not to overreact to two games. So we won’t. The Dubs still have the best record in the Association, they had a hiccup against the Lakers, they couldn’t hit the side of a barn in the fourth quarter against the Clippers, and they still have a team that is third in the league (behind Dallas and Toronto) in scoring. They have gotten it done without much of anything from Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and David Lee, and there is no better backcourt in the NBA. Their 16-game winning streak, which has been followed by three losses in five games, remains the gold standard of success for this still-young season. So there is no overreacting in this edition of the MVP rankings. Next edition? Let’s see if Curry can get his 3-point percentage back into the 40s where it belongs. He is ranked 44th now, trailing a cast of characters that includes Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka and Kelly Olynyk. (LAST EDITION: No. 1)
3. Jimmy Butler, Bulls: He is going to get a max contract next summer. You can take that to the bank. He has been the most consistent performer on a Bulls team that we all expected to be led by Derrick Rose or Pau Gasol or Joakim Noah, but not by the kid from Marquette who was taken No. 30 overall by the Bulls in the 2011 draft. Some of the players chosen ahead of him include Jan Vesely (No. 6), Jimmer Fredette (No. 10), Chris Singleton (No. 18), Nolan Smith (No. 21) and JuJuan Johnson (No. 27). As coach-turned-columnist Bobby Gonzalez keeps telling me, it is beyond incredible that NBA teams devote so much time and money to scouting, only have to pick one very good player each year, and still manage to get it soooo wrong so many times. It is scandalous. So props to the Bulls for getting it right with this guy, even though they missed the chance to lock him up long term back in October. (LAST EDITION: Unranked)
4. Anthony Davis, Pelicans: When it is all said and done, this kid will win this award four or five times. Good things are going to happen to the Pelicans. When exactly will that begin? Maybe it starts tonight against the Spurs, who are on the second night of a back-to-back, with Gregg Popovich more than overdue to rest Tim Duncan, take his lumps down low and sacrifice another early-season game if that is what he thinks is best — even after looking like a collection of lost souls in their Christmas Day loss to Russell Westbrook et al. New Orleans is entering a tough eight-game stretch that could help define its season: the Spurs twice, Bulls, Suns, Rockets, Wizards, Hornets and Grizzlies. After that, they play a stretch of five straight on the road in the East. If they can go 9-4 in that stretch, they’ll stay in playoff contention through April. (LAST EDITION: No. 4)
5. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies: As an East Coast guy, I count my blessings that the Grizzlies, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Mavericks play in the Central time zone. Just as LeBron is pushing 30, I am pushing 50 and don’t do late nights the way I once did. The DVR is a blessing everyone my age should be thankful for this holiday season. A couple of months ago, the thinking around my home city of New York was that Marc would be joining ‘Melo next season as the anchors of Phil Jackson’s Knicks. Now, with New York having more losses than Philadelphia (yes, that is true), it is very difficult to imagine Gasol leaving such a good thing in Memphis. Where does that leave the Knicks? A rival executive believes they are going to end up with Greg Monroe as their big man anchor. A more timely question: Can the Grizz stop the bleeding after losing to the Jazz to extend their losing streak to three? Friday night’s game against Houston will be a character test. (LAST EDITION: No. 3)
DROPPED OUT: Kyle Lowry (5).
THE NEXT FIVE: Kyle Lowry, Raptors; John Wall, Wizards; LeMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers; LeBron James, Cavs; Dwyane Wade, Heat.
Chris Sheridan, publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com, is an official MVP voter. Follow him on Twitter.