DENVER — LeBron James sat at his locker with the twisted ankle that would keep him out of Thursday night’s game — one that the Nuggets would dominate 130-102 — and read through Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
It was three weeks after claiming not to know what “contraction” meant. One day after not knowing what he did or didn’t mean with his “Karma is a b****” tweet. It was a night when The King’s injury meant the rest of his team would face a tough battle without him.
So it was a perfect time to read in chapter one — The Laying of Plans — the good that could come out of the Heat’s most dynamic player wisely sitting out a game in which there’s no need to risk his health.
“Therefore, in your deliberations,” the great philosopher wrote, “when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison.”
Hopefully the comparison Thursday afforded Miami — the Heat with LeBron versus the Heat without — will instill something in the players not named Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or LeBron James.
All year, the Big Three have carried the Heat. They’d scored 68 percent of the team’s points entering the game against Denver, and they’re clearly the heart, soul, talent and force of this Miami run.
That’s fine. But role players still need to play a role. And greatness — and being so close to great ones — has a way of making guys complacent and their edge dulled.
It’s what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra would call the consequences of success meeting the human condition.
So it was the perfect time to let that comparison unfold, “Art of War” style.
LeBron’s twisted ankle is not to be trifled with, and the Heat most likely would not have won even had he played.
This second night of a back-to-back in Denver is one of the league’s most difficult. The altitude plays tricks on the body. It can tire an entire team. In fact, Eastern teams playing the Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back have now lost 35 of the last 36 times.
There was no reason to see The Chosen One on the floor Thursday night.
But there was a Sun Tzu advantage to be had.
Without him, the Heat gave more minutes to guys like Mike Miller (33), Mario Chalmers (28) and Erick Dampier (25).
The meaning of the moment Thursday wasn’t so much about winning, or even seeing greatness emerge from the non-Big Three players.
Even if the Heat didn’t want to say it or believe it, this was about letting the other guys on this team shake off the complacency, feel the burn and move away from the very real ease with which any person can embrace success with a softness that endangers it.
This was about Mike Miller not taking open threes and the hope that hesitancy will now be behind him. It was about his four points and, limited as they were, the impact they can have on his future play.
“That’s the role we want those guys playing,” Spoelstra said. “That was an adjustment period for James (Jones) early on in the season. He was shot-faking and passing off some open looks. Obviously he’s made that adjustment. Now when the ball hits his hands and he has daylight he lets it go.
“It’ll be the same thing with Mike. That’s part of the process of coming back.”
It was also about Chalmers looking like an out-of-place turnover machine too accustomed to feeding his good buddy LeBron with the knowledge The Chosen One will bail him out.
It was about being forced to live a night without LeBron’s greatness to begin the process of finding whatever measure of their own they have inside themselves.
And, yes, it was about letting the Nuggets give the Heat what their own coach probably can’t give as often as he’d like: a little humiliation.
Enough to spark the hunger and drive necessary to make this Heat season the start of a dynasty.
“I think we’ll respond to these two games,” Spoelstra said. “I think that competitive nature will come out.”
Afterward, the players were, to say the least, not happy.
And perhaps, back to LeBron and his reading choice, there are even more words and lessons from Sun Tzu to be applied to this Pat Riley creation.
Like these from chapter four: “The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat.”
The Heat are good fighters indeed. And Thursday night’s absolute beatdown, minus their King, might be another step toward putting themselves beyond such things.