LeBron James donned a black mask to protect his fractured nose on Thursday night, but it was the person who took his off that had to scare the rest of the league.
So who was that unmasked man at AmericanAirlines Arena? None other than Dwyane Wade.
No, not the Wade of earlier this season but the All-Star version, the healthy one.
The Heat sliced and diced the New York Knicks like a fast-food steak in a 108-82 blowout, as Wade and James combined for 54 points on a lights-out 23 of 32 in the field. The defending champions scored their sixth consecutive victory and ninth in the last 10 starts to stay on the heels of the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference race.
James scored a game-high 31 points, while Wade added 23 more. Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Norris Cole contributed 11 points each.
“That’s a big difference when we have both our horses healthy and out there at the same time,” Chalmers said. “When they’re going (well), we just try to follow suit. ”
The Heat went on a 23-3 tear to break open a competitive game in the third quarter. They connected on 61 percent of their field goal tries overall.
Wade was more impressed by the defense, which was “where we need it to be,” as he put it. The Knicks shot 37 percent in the field, the fourth consecutive Heat opponent to be held under the 40 percent mark.
“That’s how we win games,” Wade said.
That Wade had slowly but surely rounded into playoff form was apparent on one play late in the decisive third peri0d.
First, Wade coaxed Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. off his feet on a trademark pump fake. Then the guard drained a 21-foot bank shot, another specialty of his. While the fans roared their approval, the veteran gave Hardaway a good-natured dig on the way to the free throw line, where he completed a three-point play.
“We battled until the three- or four-minute mark in the third quarter, then all hell broke loose,” Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said.
The appearance was the first for James since he broke his nose on a drive to the basket seven days earlier. He wore a clear mask in a full contact practice on Wednesday afternoon but said it was uncomfortable and impeded his peripheral vision. He requested a different model, which arrived shortly before the game.
“I was able to get a carbon fiber one, which is actually lighter than the one I’ve been wearing in practice,” James said. “It came through in the last minute, so I went with it. It was awesome.”
“He played like Batman out there,” teammate Chris Bosh said.
Said Shane Battier, “(The mask) was pretty sweet. I don’t think that it will inspire anyone to break his nose. But if you do it, you look kind of cool. Only LeBron could make breaking your nose look cool.”
Not even an inadvertent kick to the midsection in the second period could stop James, who struggled to the bench after a time-out but did not leave the game. He averaged 35.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the last five games.
“It’s going to be a challenge since I haven’t worn one (a mask) since my second season in the league,” said James, who was kicked in the midsection late in the second period but remained in the game. “Any little rest I can get, I can always benefit from it. I took advantage of it. My body could have used it, especially coming back from All-Star break.