LeBron James scored 39 points on 68% shooting against the Lakers. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
LeBron James sprawled his body on the Staples Center court, endangering a physique that no Lloyd's of London policy could adequately protect.
He was a twisting mass of sinewy muscle, reaching low to grab the ball away from Kobe Bryant on a long rebound. The Miami Heat star dove to the floor in that fourth-quarter moment Thursday and spun toward the Lakers' three-point line.
Rising quickly, James absorbed contact from a quickly closing Bryant and started a fast break that ended with the best player on this planet or any other finding Ray Allen for an open three-pointer that gave Miami the lead.
In what the Lakers were hoping was a statement game, James and the Heat provided the closing remarks.
After stumbling for much of a six-game, 10-day trip that generated more racy headlines than an issue of Us Weekly, the defending champions found their footing in the final 24 hours during back-to-back victories over Golden State and the Lakers.
Along the way, Miami provided the NBA with a not-so-friendly reminder: The Heat is still the league's best team, thanks largely to the unconquerable King James.
Twenty minutes after Miami's 99-90 triumph over the Lakers, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra's eyes were still wide in amazement over James' fourth-quarter foray to the hardwood.
"That epitomizes what LeBron James is all about," Spoelstra said. "That's the best player in the league throwing his body out there in harm's way to come up with a big rebound, completely horizontal on the floor."
Only two days earlier, it had seemed as if the Heat might be down for the count.
Miami lost three of its first four games on the trip, extending a funk in which it had been Scrooge-stingy in the quality wins department since a Christmas Day victory over Oklahoma City.
The defeats weren't nearly as troubling as the subplots.
The Heat was outrebounded by 19 during a loss to Indiana, prompting center Chris Bosh to suggest the team's schemes needed changing.
Starting guard Mario Chalmers criticized Spoelstra two days later after missing a potential game-winning jumper in a loss to Portland, saying his rhythm had been ruined because he sat out most of the fourth quarter.
Then, after a nondescript victory over Sacramento, came another potentially divisive development. Spoelstra sat Dwyane Wade for the entire fourth quarter and Bosh for all but the quarter's final 40 seconds of a game against Utah.
James and a group of far less heralded teammates nearly overcame a 19-point deficit before ultimately falling short.
"Coach makes the calls," a terse Wade told reporters afterward. "I'm just the player."
Wade could smile about sitting out the fourth quarter two days later. He had 15 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals in only 29 minutes during a much-needed blowout victory over Golden State.
The triumph was most notable for James becoming the youngest player in league history to reach 20,000 points, at 28 years and 17 days.
He was prolific on offense and defense against the Lakers, scoring 39 points and guarding Bryant for much of the fourth quarter. When James dove to the floor with a little more than five minutes left, chasing one of Bryant's 17 misses, he altered a game and potentially a season. He downplayed his effort afterward, saying merely, "We needed every possession."
"Those long rebounds always result with them getting a kick-out three," James said. "I just went on the floor, got up and was able to find Ray in transition."
The Heat found more than a couple of victories at the end of its trip. A team that had been fractured was whole again, with the petty infighting somehow strengthening its bonds.
"Just like everyone's family, you love your family at times and at times you don't want to talk to them," Wade said. "But that's who we are. We love each other, we respect each other and we all have one common goal, to win."
Having taken the plunge, the Heat is rising again.