MIAMI – LeBron James acknowledges there is a point in the NBA schedule where regular-season games start carrying a little bit more significance.
He's not shy about saying that, either. Though they all count the same in the marathon 82-game schedule, games after the All-Star break just seem to carry more weight in James' mind. The reason is simple: With every passing game, he's that much closer to returning to the playoffs — and resuming his still-unfulfilled quest of winning an NBA championship.
Miami opens its post-All-Star schedule Tuesday at home against Sacramento. This time of year is often called the second half, but it's more accurate to depict it as the final third, since the Heat have just 26 games left before the opening postseason round begins.
James has been saying for weeks that he starts getting into playoff mode after the break.
The Heat can't wait to see what that really means.
"We're still learning each other," James said. "Our record is really good and we're excited about our record, but we understand, we've still got to continue to get better."
In other words, follow his lead.
He's the league's two-time reigning MVP, a title that he was widely expected to relinquish this season in exchange of pursuing, well, another title. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh alongside him in Miami, many people — James included — thought he would be unlikely to put up MVP numbers for a third straight year.
But James' stats have gotten better each month. Scoring is up. Rebounding is up. Assists are up.
And the strange part is, he's doing it while the productivity for Wade and Bosh has increased as well, making Miami look more and more like a championship contender as the year rolls along.
"Here's what's interesting. As his personal numbers have increased the last few weeks, what's important is our level of team execution and trust and confidence has also increased," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "As long as those two things can work in concert, we're all for it. We're talking about an MVP, a two-time MVP, who is so dynamic and versatile with his skills he can impact the game in so many ways."
Just look at Sunday night's All-Star Game as proof of that. The Eastern Conference may have lost to the West All-Stars, but James still managed a triple-double — 29 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
The only other player in All-Star history to do that? Michael Jordan.
James comes out of the All-Star break ranked third in the league in scoring (26.1), 13th in assists (7.3, despite spending almost as much time lately at power forward than point guard), and tops the NBA charts in two categories that measure efficiency — plus-minus (plus 8.3 per game) and the combination of points, assists and rebounds (40.8).
"I didn't want to think about me being MVP this year," James said. "I wanted to think about bringing the Miami Heat an MVP player on the court. ... I've always said over my career team success comes individual accolades — and I guess my name is back in the race."
Miami's 9-8 start to the season is long forgotten. The Heat are 32-7 since.
Around the league, no one is surprised that the Heat turned things around. Suns coach Alvin Gentry scolded reporters in November for asking him about Miami's "struggles," answering those questions by saying onlookers would be crazy to think Miami's tough times would continue all season. That night, as if on cue, Gentry's team lost in Miami by 27 points.
Much got made of a team meeting in Dallas and a bump James gave Spoelstra during a time-out that same night, but in actuality, there may not have been one definitive launching moment for where things started clicking for Miami.
"We knew each other's games from playing on different teams, but it's different when you're playing with a guy," Wade said. "You have to make adjustments to not only the teammates around us, but to our style of play a little bit. ... It was just time. Time cures all. Anytime we had a point where we felt it wasn't going as smooth, we talked about it."
For his part, James doesn't look to a certain game as the springboard, either.
Miami's best basketball, he believes, is still to come — and given the way the Heat played going into the break, he may be right.
"I think he's more comfortable in the system, more comfortable playing with the guys, he knows where everybody's going to be," Heat center and longtime James teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. "We use a lot more of our playbook now. We have a lot more plays in. We just had to have some games under our belt as individuals and as a team for us to be comfortable."
Wade says that if he got an MVP vote now, he'd pick James.
It's tough to argue.
Still, remember what James said Jan. 1 about how he would handicap the MVP chances for either himself or Wade, who also hasn't seen any major dips in his stats despite having two other No. 1 options playing alongside him now. "When we decided to come together, our MVP chances went out the window," James said on New Year's night.
Care to reconsider, anyone?
"Look at his numbers. He's putting up great numbers on a good team," Wade said in Los Angeles at All-Star weekend. "It shows even more to average 26, 7, and 7 and you have another guy (himself) averaging 25 and you got another guy (Bosh) averaging almost 19. And you still are a very valuable player to this team. So there's no question he can."
Spoelstra has made a number of changes to the Heat lineup over the season, experimenting with different starting point guards, then always having either Mario Chalmers or Carlos Arroyo on the floor, then going to long stretches without either. James has been a hybrid, going from point guard to power forward — neither his preferred position, remember — at times within the span of one possession.
The biggest change was one that Wade and James may have made on their own. They're attack players who tried to defer to each other too much in the early going. So now, they find ways to attack at the same time.
"Me and D-Wade were trying to, I guess, shoot less and make sacrifices and it was really hurting our team," James said. "Until we turned the switch and said, 'OK, we need to just be ourselves and let everyone else catch up to us on the team,' it's then we started winning basketball games. And we knew we were going to be all right then."
James would prefer to be better than "all right." He desperately hopes this is the year to finally win it all.
Maybe the harbinger of what awaits came Sunday night. Jordan's All-Star triple-double was in 1997. His Bulls won that season's NBA championship.
James starts getting ready for that playoff mode on Tuesday.
"We'll go out there and just play the game the right way," James said. "We never get in each other's way."
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.