But after a practice at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., the day before the Blazers game, the questions James fielded from the local media had more to do with Portland guard Brandon Roy's fourth-quarter prowess than with his own. Asked later if he found that line of questioning amusing, James chuckled and said, "Well, yeah." The next evening he showed fans at the Rose Garden that Roy—not to mention almost everyone else in the league—is far from being his equal with the game on the line. James outscored the Blazers by himself in the final period, 17--15, and slashed through four defenders to finish off the 84--83 victory. "LeBron showed why he is who he is," said Blazers forward Martell Webster. "He did what superstars do."
The rarest of superstars doesn't need the ball in his hands to take over a game down the stretch. James proved he's in that category three nights earlier against the Lakers, when his fourth-quarter harassment of Kobe Bryant allowed Cleveland to get an impressive road win. It wasn't the first time James had successfully taken on the challenge of guarding Bryant late in a game; in a 94--90 win over L.A. on Dec. 20 Pavlovic was assigned to Bryant until James gave his teammate a fourth-quarter order: "Go defend someone else." Last week the Cavs were leading 98--95 on the Lakers' final possession when James made sure Bryant never shook free, and L.A. didn't even attempt a potential game-tying three.
The display was all part of James's rapidly improving ability to determine what the Cavs need on a given night, and to provide it. Sometimes that doesn't involve points or rebounds but an understanding of the bigger picture. Varejão's first game back, at home against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 11, happened to coincide with James's return after missing five games with that finger injury. James asked Brown to keep him out of the starting lineup and to bring him off the bench at the same time as Varejão, realizing that if they entered together the cheers for James's return would keep Varejão from being booed for holding out. "Just protecting a teammate," James said.
We know he can protect his teammates, but can James carry them as far as he did last season in a conference that is tougher at the top? His talent is so all-encompassing that it would be foolish to bet against him. "It doesn't matter if people aren't talking about us in January, in February," says Jones. "We'll see what they're saying in May and June." As long as they have James to lean on, the Cavaliers will be in the conversation.