LeBron James has spent a career refining basketball in his mind. It's how he works. Before the fourth quarter, for instance, when he's typically moved onto the opposing team's top scorer, he sits on the bench mentally reviewing the player he'll defend.
"I start just going through the notes that we planned on him, the [video] cut-ups I've watched of that player,'' he says. "What fourth-quarter sets he likes to run, and their team likes to run for him. Where he likes to be on the floor. What he's more comfortable doing.
"Then I'm ready."
So when he's asked about playing Indiana next, and how they'll strategize against him again, you know he's run the matchup through his mind. And it's not a hard conclusion on Indiana's best play against him.
"They'll try to put me on the floor, maybe,'' he said. "They'll be physical with me, maybe. … The word is you've got to beat up the Heat to beat them. And every team has tried to do that."
This wasn't just Indiana's way in their playoff series last year. It was Chicago's method last week. That series offered another glimpse into what may be the final rite of public passage for the best player in the game.
Lots of teams hit LeBron at the rim. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took it to uncharted territory. He ordered his players to get rough with LeBron in the open court, well before he became unstoppable near the basket.
When Nazr Mohammed threw a two-arm wrap around LeBron near mid-court, then shoved LeBron to the floor, Thibodeau snapped. He said LeBron flopped.
Nate Robinson then football-tackled LeBron near mid-court. There was something old-school gallant about Chicago's game plan, bit players trying to take out the game's best player.
"Hopefully, the league will look at that,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
That's not intent here. It's, again, this strange, final passage LeBron seems to be making. Teams always played Michael Jordan hard right to the end of his Chicago run.
But no one got Medieval on Jordan. They certainly didn't belittle his attitude or game. Yet for as well as LeBron has handled himself, as much an ambassador to the game he is, this season has been one strange comment about him after another.
Boston General Manager Danny Ainge said after a Bulls-Heat game in March, it's "almost embarrassing how LeBron would complain about officiating." (That prompted Heat President Pat Riley to say Ainge should "Shut the f--- up.")
Then there was Thibodeau's flopping comment ("I don't spend a lot of time on what Tom Thibodeau is saying,'' Spoelstra said.)
Even Phil Jackson didn't talk about LeBron's talent when referring to him in a New York Times magazine story on Sunday. He offered LeBron as Exhibit A why referees need to patrol illegal contact better.
"LeBron James has the best 'off' arm in the game,'' Jackson said.
Now it's Indiana again. Indiana has one of the game's loose thinkers, Lance Stephenson, who made the choke sign from the bench at LeBron last year. It has coach Frank Vogel, who said the Heat team was a bunch of "floppers."
It has the size and muscle the Heat team doesn't.
"We know what they'll try to do and they'll try to jam it down our throat,'' Spoelstra said.
A year ago against Indiana, the Heat started to be LeBron James' team, really be his team. Chris Bosh was hurt. Dwyane Wade was hurting. Indiana went up 2-1 while playing smashmouth basketball on the Heat.
"It got pretty physical,'' LeBron remembers.
LeBron then approached a triple-double in the final three games. The Heat advanced to win the championship. And here the Pacers are again.
"I know what's coming,'' he said.
He'll be hit hard. He's knows it. He's asked what teams should do when his 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame comes downcourt. He doesn't smile.
"Get out of the way,'' he says.