Redemption? James plays like a champion for now

LeBron James made sure the Mavericks' celebration didn't last very long.

Minutes after Dallas unfurled its 2010-11 championship banner in a pregame ceremony on Christmas Day, the best basketball player on the planet unleashed his fury as the Heat dismantled the Mavericks, 105-94.

Sure it came six months too late but it was at least a measure of revenge for James and the Heat after last June's six-game NBA Finals defeat at the hands of the Mavs. "The King," of course, was universally maligned for his underwhelming performance in the finals, especially his play late in games.

For reasons likely only known to James, the superstar morphed into a shrinking violet in the final frame of Game 4 in Dallas and never recovered. The rabbit ears went up, James' game went down and the Heat were forced to watch Dallas celebrate on their own home floor after falling in Game 6.

"I just wasn't myself," James said of last season. "There was a lot going on, on the court and off the court."

You can hardly call James' Christmas Day performance a revelation and it's certainly not redemption, not yet anyway. After all, winning the opener of a truncated NBA season, even one as high profile is this, can never compare to a world championship.

But let's make no mistake, LBJ was brilliant, pouring in a Miami opening-day record 37 points while adding 10 rebounds and six assists.

Still it's not like we haven't seen Herculean regular season performances from James in the past. Heck, James has even been spectacular at points in the postseason but it's the size of the stage that matters most and James came up small under the brightest of lights last season.

Until LeBron gets over the biggest hump of all, there is always something that's going to be missing on his resume. To that end, it seems like James has matured a bit in the extended offseason, working on both his mid-range game as well as his post moves.

"I can't afford to come back and not be a better player and dwell on what happened," James said. "It was for time for me to get better."

Often James' critics would point to his immense physical advantages over his opponents and wonder why the 6-foot-8, 250-pound specimen would settle for the three instead of taking it to the basket and forcing the issue. Well, he was 15-of-19 from the charity stripe against Dallas on Christmas and didn't attempt anything from long range.

"I just think he has just done a great job of being a student of the game," teammate Dwyane Wade said. "He's coming back this year more comfortable and more confident."

For now it's probably best to call the Mavericks the reigning NBA champions and not the defending champs. Sure Dirk and Jet are still around but the championship team's defensive heart, Tyson Chandler, is now in New York. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed DeShawn Stevenson calls North Jersey home, J.J. Barea is in the Twin Cities and Peja Stojakovic has called it a career.

The Mavs team that took the floor in North Texas against Miami is surely skilled and certainly talented but has proven nothing as a group.

So understand, playing like a champion in December doesn't make you a champion in June. It is, however, a good start.

"That's the LeBron James we want to see for 66-plus games," Wade said. "If we do that, we'll be very successful."