LeBron James shook a few hands, slapped a few fives, gave a few hugs.
That was the extent of his celebrating after the Miami Heat ousted the Indiana Pacers.
A return to the Eastern Conference finals — no small achievement by any measure — is nice, though it's far from the oft-stated goal for the reigning NBA MVP and the Heat. They'll host Game 1 of the East title series on Monday night against either Philadelphia or Boston, both of those teams having been ousted from last year's playoffs by Miami in five games.
"You can't just show up, no matter who you're playing against," James said Saturday, when the Heat resumed practice after taking one day off to rest up and recover from a grind against Indiana. "We have to prepare the same way we've done the first two rounds — and even prepare ourselves even more. As the rounds go, the competition grows, so we look forward to the challenge."
The way James sees it, there's not a lot of reason for celebration yet. After all, he's not wearing the letters VIII across his upper teeth.
Over the past couple seasons, James has worn mouthguards with fangs, others with the Heat logo, and some with no adornments whatsoever. For these playoffs, he's broken out something new: A mouthguard embossed "XVI."
It doesn't take much to decipher what those Roman numerals are supposed to signify. It's 16, the number of wins that the Heat would need to capture the NBA championship. Miami has the first eight of those out of the way, but in this all-or-nothing season for the Heat, that's far from enough to satisfy anyone. Beating New York brought one or two quick moments of excitement, as did topping Indiana, but neither provided the ultimate moment.
"The first year in Cleveland, when we beat Washington in that first-round series, it was an achievement for not only myself and my teammates but for our franchise, which hadn't been to the playoffs in a long time," James said. "Those days are over. My aspiration is to go win a championship now. So those days are over."
They've been over for a while, of course. And as if anyone needed any reminder of the goal, James started wearing the "XVI" mouthguard. The idea came from Mike Mancias, a trainer who has worked with James for years, first in Cleveland and for the past two seasons with the Heat.
"We always look for inspiration throughout the playoffs and throughout the season to just kind of get me going," James said. "He knows that I'm a big Gladiator fan, of course Maximus, the Roman numerals, all that stuff. So that's where the inspiration came from. Sometimes I say I want something, sometimes Mike surprises me with a lot of it. I like that. I like the inspiration."
Of course, the main source of inspiration remains the championship trophy.
Saturday was essentially a tuneup day for the Heat, given that they couldn't exactly plan for an opponent because Game 7 of the Celtics-76ers series was still hours from tip-off.
Miami practiced again without All-Star forward Chris Bosh, who remains sidelined indefinitely because of a lower abdominal strain that kept him out of the final five games of the Indiana series. Bosh has been able to resume some light conditioning work, but his return to the court hardly sounds imminent.
"For me, it's my responsibility right now to prepare this team without him," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "If and when it gets to a point where he starts to emerge into the picture, we would gladly deal with that, because we're a more dangerous offensive team, a more dangerous defensive team when he's in the mix. But for our mental state of health, I love you Chris, but our preparation is without him."
Without Bosh, James and Dwyane Wade predictably were asked to do more, and responded.
Wade scored 99 points in the final three games of the Pacers series — all Miami wins — while James scored 98 points in those games. James finished the six games against the Pacers with 65 rebounds, his most ever in a postseason series, topping the 60 he grabbed in a seven-game matchup with Detroit in 2006. And Spoelstra isn't shy about suggesting that the Heat need Wade and James to stay at that level to keep winning, saying Saturday what happened in the last three games against Indiana "has to be the norm."
Wade and James indicated they welcomed that.
"You prepare to go out there and try to play at a high level," James said. "Does it always happen that way? It doesn't. Sometimes the ball just doesn't go in for you. We're not just shooting all layups. We're also making jumpers and floaters and things of that nature. He said the right thing. He said the right thing to just keep us on our toes and let us know we can't have a relaxed moment."
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