- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ORLANDO, Fla. — LeBron James was cast as the NBA’s biggest villain last season, and he didn’t like it. It affected his game, he later admitted. So James vowed he would be himself this year and let the chips fall where they may.

When the Eastern Conference All-Stars were introduced Sunday night, James, along with Miami teammate Dwyane Wade, danced and smiled on stage and gave the fans something to ponder — hate the Heat if you want, but we’re winning, and we’re doing it our way.

“I’m on the right path, back to playing basketball how I play, and that’s back to having fun at a high level,” James said. “The best thing about this season so far is we’re playing good basketball. Our team feels we are one right now, especially with last year under our belt, so we’re just going to get better every day.”

James proceeded to put on a show and, along with Blake Griffin of the Los Angles Clippers, gave the fans a de facto slam-dunk competition that was light years ahead of the yawner that took place during All-Star Saturday Night.

James finished with 28 points and Wade with 20 as the two connected on several picture-perfect alley-oops, displaying the kind of chemistry that often seemed lacking last year. Miami entered the All-Star break at 27-7, is on an eight-game winning streak and routinely is crushing opponents by double-digit margins.

James also spent the offseason improving his post game and is more formidable now than he’s ever been. But the knock on James is that he lacks a killer instinct, that he isn’t a closer.

A signature moment came in the closing seconds, when James, guarded by Kobe Bryant, had a chance to make a game-tying shot and attempted a pass instead. It was picked off by Griffin.

Oddly enough, it was Bryant who started jawing at James, telling him to “take the [expletive] shot.”

“Yeah, he was telling me to shoot it,” James said after the game. “I seen my teammate open for a split second, I told him I seen him open the first time, and I didn’t release the ball. When I tried to throw it late, that’s what usually happens, and it results in a turnover.”

The West held off a furious fourth-quarter comeback and hung on to beat the East 152-149 win. James was upset about the loss, but he’s focused on far bigger things.

LeBron is playing at an MVP level,” Wade said. “Obviously, it takes a while to adjust, and I thought he did great last year, and I think he’s adjusted now and more comfortable now with the team and just in Miami, period.”

Bryant, on the other hand, is playing for a struggling Lakers team that lost Lamar Odom, may or may not trade Pau Gasol and still is adjusting to new coach Mike Brown and a new offensive system that does not include the famed Triangle.

The Lakers are 20-14, lost their shot at getting superstar point guard Chris Paul and for the first time ever, have to look up in the standings to see the Clippers (20-11). Lob City has become a more exciting alternative than the Lake Show in Staples Center. And Bryant doesn’t like it.

On a night when he appeared in his 14th All-Star Game and passed Michael Jordan to become the leading scorer in All-Star Game history with 271 career points, Bryant was his usual surly self.

He suffered a broken nose on a hard foul from Wade in the fourth quarter and skipped the postgame media session as doctors assessed the damage. He left Amway Center surrounded by security and spoke to no one.

James passed on a shot Bryant would have taken. James plays with a relaxed intensity while Bryant plays with controlled fury. Bryant has five rings and a reputation as one of the game’s best clutch players. James still is looking for his first ring and appears to have his own definition of what clutch means.

Even during an exhibition, two of the greatest talents the game has seen showed you exactly who they are.

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