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HOUSTON – If Kobe Bryant's season seems tough, imagine what Dwyane Wade went through five years ago.
"I came to All-Star weekend one year, I think we had won nine games. Seriously," Wade said Friday. "I was looking for my 10th win at the All-Star game."
Things sure have changed for his Miami Heat.
Back where they first teamed up as All-Stars in 2006, Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh return as NBA champions who will start together for the Eastern Conference on Sunday night.
Now the misery belongs to Bryant, Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers, whose season has been so disappointing that Bryant was asked Friday if the All-Star weekend was a "retreat" for him.
"I don't know if it's a retreat, it's just more of an opportunity to get some rest, regroup, put the first half of the season behind us and move on," he said.
As Wade knows, the All-Star break can be just that — a break — from a forgettable season.
He arrived for the 2008 All-Star game with a 9-43 record after the Heat lost on Valentine's Day to the Chicago Bulls, on their way to a 15-win debacle just two years after they won the NBA title.
"I put all that aside though, and I came and I enjoyed the weekend, and when I went back to Miami, it was like, 'Oh my God, we're back in it,'" Wade said. "But All-Star weekend, you just enjoy being an All-Star. You enjoy being around the guys. You can kind of forget about that a little bit, unless you have the cameras and the microphones in front of you asking you questions about it, but besides that you try to enjoy it."
This time, the Heat celebrated Valentine's Day in Oklahoma City with a 110-100 victory over the Thunder, the team they beat in five games last summer for the title. They have won seven in a row, James is playing arguably the best basketball of his career, and they can relax and reminisce as they return to Houston.
"It's really indescribable," Bosh said, "just to not only win a championship with great guys, be in a great locker room, and just to have fun doing it, but just to be an All-Star every year, play with great teammates, I mean to play in front of a lot people in arenas every night. I don't take those things for granted."
James, Wade and Bosh were in their third NBA seasons when they were chosen for the 2006 game, which turned out like so many Heat games these days. James was voted MVP after scoring 29 points and leading a huge East comeback that was wrapped up when Wade made the go-ahead basket with 16 seconds left.
Think about that: James was already the best player that night, and he was nowhere near the player he is today.
"I'm a better player. At that point in time, I wasn't a complete basketball player. I couldn't shoot as well as I can now, I never posted up back then," James said. "More games, more playoff games, more knowledge. You continue to learn each and every day, it makes you a better player. That's what you want, to become a better player. That's what I want. I want to be the greatest of all-time. I try to do whatever it takes to get me in that position.
"Seven years, I've tried to improve each and every year."
He's gotten to the point now where he ran off an NBA-record six straight games with at least 30 points and 60 percent shooting from the field, and seems to be distancing himself from anyone else that can take the MVP award he won last year for the third time in four years.
"He's doing well," Bosh said in a Texas-sized understatement. "That's the best way to put it."
Bosh was chosen as a starter Friday by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who will lead the East. He replaces Boston guard Rajon Rondo, who pulled out with a torn ACL.
Bryant and Howard are still here, away from a Los Angeles season that's been anything but a Hollywood story.
Considered a title contender after acquiring Howard and Steve Nash in the summer, the Lakers fell to 25-29 after they were blown out Wednesday by the rival Clippers, who opened a 13-game lead over them in the Pacific Division standings.
Smiling as he sat with his daughter, Natalia, Bryant laughed that he wished the All-Star break was a chance for the Lakers to "hit the reset button" on what he's said has been a most difficult season.
"Hopefully there's an easy button like in the commercial when we come back in the second half of the season and things are a little easier for us," he said.
Howard has battled injuries to his back and shoulder and has been nothing like the player who has been the NBA's dominant big man in recent years. He said at times he hasn't been having fun and has tried to ignore all the bad news around the team.
"You just try to stay away from the tube and do as much as I can to rehab my back and my shoulder and my mind, and really just get away from everything when I'm not playing basketball," he said.
If he's looking for a chance to enjoy himself this season, it may get no better than the next few days.
"It's a great weekend, it's an unbelievable weekend for the fans to be able to put all their favorite players together in one venue," James said. "We have a great time with it."
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