Shane Battier jokes about joining the Miami Heat before last season so he no longer had to guard LeBron James. But there once was a time Battier did a decent job on James.
But that was the old James.
When James was a rookie with Cleveland in 2003-04, he shot just 41.7 percent from the field. In his fourth season of 2006-07, when he led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, James shot a hardly eye-popping 47.6 percent.
But things sure have changed since then. James upped his percentage to 48.4 the next year. That started a run in which James’ percentage improved six seasons in a row.
James, who joined the Heat in 2010-11 before becoming Battier’s teammate last season, is firing away at a 55.6 clip this season, on pace to be a career best. He ranks 10th in the NBA, but all of the guys ahead of him are big men who rarely venture outside. Among those who aren’t post players, the second-highest NBA percentage belongs to Spurs guard Tony Parker at 53.2 (through Thursday).
When James played with the Cavaliers from 2003-10, Battier guarded him twice a year with Memphis from 2003-06 and with Houston from 2006-10. The defensive specialist remembers the strategies he employed against James in his early days with Cleveland.
“I’ve been guarding him basically my entire career,’’ Battier said. “You see the progression. He used to lose confidence in his jumper fairly quickly. But now it looks smooth and it looks like a textbook jump shot, and he’s got a lot of confidence in it. He’s finally realized that, when he puts his head down and goes to the rack, there’s not much anybody can do about it.
“It used to be the normal free-throw line jumper (James struggled with). I would dare him to take that shot, and especially after a miss (James would become frustrated). I remember if he missed the next one, I knew the next one he was going to put his head down and try to get to the rack. And that was a charge waiting to happen. So a few games I was able to foul him out.’’
For a guy who has claimed to be a whiz at Jeopardy! Battier’s memory does fail him sometimes. In 16 career games against Battier, James never fouled out. Only four times did he have more than two fouls, once getting three, twice four and once five.
Nevertheless, Battier sure is glad he doesn’t have to guard James these days.
“Early on in his career, he had relative weaknesses and the relative weaknesses are now very small,’’ Battier said.
James’ impressive shooting really has been on display the past three games. From early in the fourth quarter last Sunday at Toronto until late in the first quarter Wednesday against Houston, he had a stretch in which he made 20 of 21 shots. That included a near-perfect 13-of-14 outing Monday against Charlotte.
James took the ball to the hole against the Bobcats, with each of his attempts being inside in the paint. But he went outside regularly against the Rockets and made jumpers. James finished the night 11 of 18, including 3 of 6 on 3-pointers.
“I can do a little bit of everything,’’ said James, who is shooting 40.8 percent on 3-pointers, also on pace to be the best of his career.
He’s not bragging. He can.
But what about James, 28, seeing his field-goal percentage rise for six consecutive seasons? Is James simply becoming a smarter player?
“I’ve always been intelligent and had a high basketball IQ, it’s just my game has improved,’’ said James, who has dug his way out of his early career hole to raise his career field-goal percentage to 48.7 (through Thursday). “I’ve worked on my game each and every summer and I implement what I do in the summertime to the game floor and it works.
“I understand I’m more efficient. I don’t take as many (bad shots). When you’re younger, you take bad shots, you take fadeaway shots, you take contested shots. You just learn. You learn from those moments and you just continue to get better.’’
James admits sometimes he wonders if he should shoot more. But if that were the case, perhaps his percentages wouldn’t be as good.
“It’s the entire package,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James’ improvement over the years. “What you have is the most talented player in the league. He’s a once-in-a-generation player. You add to that his talent and his IQ and his understanding of the game. … He views the game the equivalent of an assistant coach. so he has that type of understanding of the game. You add all that together … and you don’t know what his ceiling is.’’
So how long can James’ keep raising his field-goal percentage? Could it still improve each year into his 30s?
The fact it has increased six seasons in a row is already something Heat teammate Dwyane Wade marvels at.
“He’s just way more efficient,’’ said Wade, who faced James with the Heat for seven years before the two joined forces in Miami. “Obviously, there are times he bails us out with certain shots with his ability. But he doesn’t have to do it as much, especially the last three years. He had to do it in his first seven years in Cleveland, but it’s unheard what he’s able to do.
“That’s why he’s going to be one of the greatest to ever put on an NBA jersey.’’
Like Battier, Wade can express relief he no longer has to go against James.
Who’s Hot: In a week in which James had a 13-of-14 game, it’s pretty hard to call any other Heat player hotter. James has shot above 60 percent in each of his past three games. During the stretch, he’s 34 of 48 for 70.8 percent while averaging 31.0 points.
Who’s Not: Whenever guard Ray Allen, 37, has a slump, talk starts that perhaps he’s finally showing his age. Well, talk has started again. Over his past four games, he’s shot just 3 of 22 while averaging a meager 3.3 points. During the stretch, Allen has gone just 1 of 10 from 3-point range, dropping his seasonal percentage to 41.9.
1. “Birdman’’ fever is starting to grip the Heat. Even the straight-laced Spoelstra has started to call wild, tattooed center Chris Andersen by his nickname or simply “Bird.’’ “I told him when I first met with him, I said I’m going to have a hard time calling him that,’’ Spoelstra said. “But, for some reason, he’s different. I would never call anybody by their nickname. And I certainly wouldn’t accept anybody calling themselves in the third person. But he is different.’’ But how different? Andersen was asked if he’s bothered about being deemed just an average guy when hanging out on unconventional South Beach. “It doesn’t bother me not one bit,” Andersen said. “I’ve never actually been in a category of average. But since you put me there, thank you.’’ The bottom line, though, is Andersen never would be considered average anywhere.
2. Not that anybody ever needs to be reminded of Wade’s tremendous work ethic. Nevertheless, Spoelstra likes to let it be known at times when Wade has showed up very early for a game or workout. Spoelstra said Wade arrived at 7:45 a.m. Wednesday for a 9:30 a.m. shootaround to prepare for that night’s game against Houston. “Spo’s always telling my business,’’ Wade said. “I got here early to get some work in (after) dropping (his two sons off for school).’’ So do the Heat pay Wade any overtime when he puts in extra time? “No,’’ Wade, making $17 million this season, quipped. “They pay me OK, so I won’t ask for it.’’
3. James and Wade could get a bit emotional Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers. Both grew up big fans of Grant Hill, and it likely will be the final time they face him. Hill, 40, is expected to retire after this season, his 19th in the NBA. Growing up in the 1990s, both James and Wade had posters on the wall from Hill’s days with the Detroit Pistons. James said he also had Hill’s basketball card and jersey, and wore his Fila brand shoes. Time is rapidly running out on Hill, who is averaging a career-low 4.3 points for the Clippers. But he is expected to get some minutes off the bench Friday.
Quotes of the week
“Either way, there’s going to be grumbling. But I’d rather see my guy there.”
— Battier, on hoping Heat center Chris Bosh is named by Spoelstra, the East All-Star coach, to start the Feb. 17 game in Houston in place of injured point guard Rajon Rondo. Supporters of Cleveland point guard Kryie Irving could grumble if a center is named to replace Rondo.
“You didn’t play any defense.”
— President Obama, speaking to Miami assistant coach Bob McAdoo during the defending champion Heat’s Jan. 28 visit to the White House. McAdoo won three NBA scoring titles during the 1970s but hardly was known for his D.
“It was awesome. That was my first hockey game. I picked a good one to go to.’’ — James, who saw his initial NHL game last Saturday in Toronto, won 1-0 by Boston over the Maple Leafs. Numbers game
7 — All-Star starters that could be on display in two games this weekend at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Heat have two starters in James and Wade, while Bosh is expected to be named as an injury replacement. The Clippers have two All-Star starters in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, although either or both might be out due to injury Friday. The Lakers, who visit Miami on Sunday, have two All-Star starters in Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, although Howard could be out because of an injury.
3 — Wins needed by the Heat to reach 1,000 for the history of the franchise. The Heat, in their 25th season, are 997-969 for a .507 winning percentage. The team began 0-17 to start their first season of 1988-89 and didn’t climb above .500 until last season.
2 — Heat players who have scored 5,000 or more points for two or more franchises. James, who now has 5,028, tallied his 5,000th Miami point Wednesday. He scored 15,251 with Cleveland from 2003-10. Allen has done it with three teams, scoring 9,681 with Milwaukee from 1996-2003, 7,273 with Seattle from 2003-07 and 5,987 with Boston from 2007-12.
It’s a double dose of LA, with the Clippers visiting Miami on Friday and the Lakers arriving two days later. Friday’s game has an added element in case the Heat (32-14) and Clippers (35-16) are eventually to meet in the NBA Finals. The Clippers won the first meeting 107-100 on Nov. 14 and another victory would give them the season series and a possible tiebreaker for home-court advantage. After the LA duo, the Heat host to Portland on Tuesday before a big meeting next Thursday at Oklahoma City. That will mark the Heat playing two of the three best other teams in the NBA in a one-week span.
Tower of Power?
Yes, they are. But the Heat continue to have lapses against inferior foes. They fell behind 50-44 at halftime last Sunday at Toronto before coming back to win 100-85. Then the next night at home to Charlotte, they held just a two-point lead in the final two minutes before squeaking out a 99-94 win.