Minutes after guiding his team to victory, LeBron James walked across the court to the front row to share a few words with Muhammad Ali.
A convincing win and a moment with The Greatest? Now that’s a stocking stuffer.
James and Chris Bosh carried Miami with fellow star Dwyane Wade in street clothes, and the Heat ran over the Phoenix Suns 95-83 on Thursday night to set up a Christmas Day showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I have (met him before), but it feels like the first time every time you meet him," James said of his chat with Ali. "He’s by far one of the top two athletes in the world."
James isn’t too bad himself.
The two-time league MVP raised eyebrows before the game, saying it might not be such a bad thing if the "watered down" NBA were to contract. On the court, he set the tone early with Wade nursing a sore knee and showcased his usual fly-through-the-air flair, earning oohs and aahs from the star-studded crowd when it wasn’t booing him.
James finished with 36 points on 13-of-22 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and had four assists to go with three steals.
Bosh gave the Heat a 1-2 punch Phoenix couldn’t keep up with, popping in midrange jumpers and getting to the rim on his way to 23 points and 11 rebounds.
The Heat were hoping to avoid a letdown against a team in transition and did just that, winning their eighth straight road game with a big one coming up against the two-time defending champions.
"We think we’re ready for it," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Phoenix debuted most of its refurbished lineup, missing only Vince Carter due to a sore left knee. Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus had little impact – six combined points – and the Suns had no answer for two-thirds of Miami’s star trio in losing for the sixth time in eight games.
Jared Dudley scored 33 points and Steve Nash had 18 assists but took just four shots and scored four points against multiple double teams for the Suns, who will be on the road Christmas night to get ready for a game Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"I think we should be optimistic," Nash said. "We’ve got to continue to get tougher. Making shots would have helped – we had a lot of great looks. We are going to need a little more time, but I think we are capable of winning games in the meantime."
This was Miami’s only visit to the desert and the stars came out for the show.
Ali was in the front row, just a seat down from Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Defensive end Darnell Dockett also was in the front row, several other athletes were mixed in and numerous Phoenix-area powerbrokers were there, bumping Suns owner Robert Sarver to the second row.
It wasn’t just the big names. Suns-Heat was a big-ticket Christmas item in the Valley and those fortunate enough to pull the golden stub made Planet Orange feel like a playoff game, bellowing plenty of boos for ‘Bron on every touch.
The Heat are used to this feverish fanaticism by now, though; every road game has a postseason pulse after Miami’s offseason power grab.
This game had a little extra buzz; it marked the first look at the new-look Suns.
Phoenix pulled off a roster-remaking trade on Sunday, adding Carter, Gortat and Pietrus in a deal that sent Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark to Orlando.
Phoenix didn’t even appear to need the newcomers at first. The Suns couldn’t seem to miss at the start, jumping out to a 21-10 lead before Gortat or Pietrus had stripped off their warmups.
The Heat weren’t even fazed.
James went on a spree in the first quarter, scoring 11 points. Bosh took over in the second, scoring seven quick points in a 17-4 run. James added a windmill dunk on a steal that had the crowd rising in anticipation and topped himself with 3.3 seconds left, throwing down a double-clutch, two-handed dunk over Channing Frye and Dudley for a three-point play that put the Heat up 45-39 at halftime.
"This is not a team to fall behind and dig yourself out of a hole," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said.
Bosh went on another spurt to start the third quarter, scoring eight quick points to help push Miami’s lead to 14. James kept the Suns from rallying in the fourth, ignoring the boos – just as he has all season – to keep hitting shots and give the Heat momentum going into Saturday.
"We played the majority of our offense through LeBron and Chris, and they really carried us at times and make the game easier for our other guys," Spoelstra said. "We got enough games from them and ball movement at key times to close out the win."
NOTES: Spoelstra won his 112th career game, tying Stan Van Gundy for third place on the franchise list. … Phoenix has lost four straight to Miami at home. … Miami has won 11 of its last 14 games by double digits.