A year older, wiser and better

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 30, 2011 - 8:13 AM

LeBron James and the star-studded Heat found that talent alone doesn't win championships, but becoming a more cohesive unit might put Miami over the top.

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Heat forward LeBron James (6)

Photo: Ron Jenkins, MCT

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Right after he finished chatting with a few reporters and just before he tugged a knit cap onto his head cockeyed, LeBron James stepped to the three-point line on the Timberwolves' practice court late Thursday afternoon and flicked the basketball 24 feet through the air, perhaps just to prove that he can still do it.

Swish.

"See," he said. "I still got it."

A season ago, James shot an average of 3.5 three-pointers during the regular season -- more than four per game during the playoffs -- and his Miami Heat won 58 games, reached the NBA Finals and ... still was considered a disappointment after losing to Dallas.

So during a long lockout summer that stretched until Christmas, James shot a commercial in California, traveled to China, held his annual camp in Ohio, strategized at Nike's compound in Oregon, attended Chris Paul's bachelor party in Las Vegas and still found time to stop by Houston in his private jet to work with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon on his low-post moves.

He is back for his ninth NBA season purportedly changed from the fellow who probably shot too many threes last season and didn't use his unique combination of speed and power enough, particularly in the Finals.

The Heat is back, too, a season wiser and older together, one year after James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined together in a collaboration that might have contributed in its own way to this last labor lockout just like young Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract did 13 years ago.

The Heat arrives at Target Center on Friday night with a 3-0 record after clobbering the champion Mavericks on opening day and beating Boston the next time out.

Miami does so supposedly with a sharper sense of purpose -- not to mention more familiarity with each other -- that can be seen not only in its 105-94 victory at Dallas but also in shooting statistics.

So far, Bosh, the 6-11 power forward, has taken more three-point attempts than either James or Wade in those three games.

"Yeah," Bosh said with a chuckle. "What? One?"

Correct.

James still shoots three-pointers -- as he showed after Thursday's optional team practice -- but says he has dropped its repetition from his everyday workouts.

"I don't know if I'll be able to go a whole season without shooting a three," he said. "We know we have enough three-point shooters on our team. For me, I'm just trying to focus on being in the paint and at the free-throw line."

Theoretical question, LeBron: If you have the ball at mid-court and there's a half-second on the clock before halftime Friday night, do you heave the ball toward the hoop or keep the streak alive?

"I didn't come into the season saying I'm not going to take any threes," he said. "It's just played out that way and it has worked for us so far. To answer your question, I don't know. We'll see."

In those three games so far, James has averaged 32.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and shot more than 12 free throws per game.

In those three games, the Heat has outscored its opponents in the paint 49.3 points to 30.7.

Is he a player transformed?

"All the great players that I've ever seen have developed something different in their game every summer and gotten better at things every year," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. "When Magic [Johnson] first came in, you saw the court vision. He's a great passer, then became a three-point shooter, then became a low-post player. LeBron certainly has the ability to do that and he's really concentrated on that."

In Year 2 together, the three so-called "Superfriends" seemingly have discovered just how they fit together with a team that has added veteran Shane Battier and rookie Norris Cole new this season.

On Wednesday, they trailed by 16 points in the first half at Charlotte, then won by a point on Wade's short bank shot just before the final buzzer.

"I think it's a little bit more comfortable," Bosh said. "We're a bit more of a team. We're coming together a lot more. Last year at this time, we were still feeling things out. We were still doing OK, but we were still trying to figure each other out. This year, we're really building on that and getting better at that."

So just how good can this collection -- one of the greatest three players ever on one team -- be?

"They're very good," Adelman said. "I was surprised they lost last year to Dallas and they seem to be even better this year. They're running the ball more. They're a better defensive team because they're just so quick. They're harder to guard. If we turn the ball over to them, it's going to be a slam-dunk contest."

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