WASHINGTON -- There is a part of LeBron James that still acts like the 15-year-old back in Akron, the one who didn't want to stand out from his high school teammates at St. Vincent-St. Mary for anything but his otherworldly talents as a basketball player.
Consider the scene that unfolded in the practice gym at MCI Center on Thursday afternoon: After winning a three-man shooting contest with Cleveland Cavaliers teammates Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Wilks, James smiled gleefully as he displayed a crisp bill of an undetermined amount.
It didn't matter if it was only a dollar to a player with a $4 million-a-year contract and an additional $120 million worth of endorsements.
"I've always wanted to win. It doesn't matter what I'm doing," James said later. "It can be at practice, it can be the real game, it can be off the court. I just want to win."
While the Cavaliers aren't winning quite enough to quell the insatiable pangs of their 21-year-old superstar, the progress that the team and James have made since his rookie season are noticeable. His first two years, he was a leader strictly on his ability.
Now, his words are being heeded, as well, and the Cavaliers seem destined for the playoffs for the first time since James' arrival as their savior.
"Right now we're a good team. I think we can become a great team," James said of the Cavaliers, 29-20 after last night's 101-89 loss to the Washington Wizards. "We're not reaching our potential because we're missing a great guy in Larry Hughes, and when he comes back, he will make us that much better."
With Hughes out indefinitely because of a broken finger on his right hand, James is vulnerable to getting double-teamed, as happened in the fourth quarter against the Wizards, when he could manage only four shots and missed them all in a six-of-23 shooting night.
"All the shots I missed tonight - layups, short pull-up jumpers, I usually make," James said after finishing with 18 points, more than a dozen below his average.
They were the shots he made in his team's two previous games, wins over Minnesota and Milwaukee in which James made crucial baskets to put the Cavaliers ahead for good. That helped quiet some of the chatter earlier that he was shying away from taking big shots.
"I have no problem taking the last shot or the big shot in the game. I feel that if I don't have a shot, or my teammate has a better shot, I'm going to give it up," James said. "That's the kind of player I am."
James was more facilitator than finisher last night, compensating for his poor shooting with eight assists and nine rebounds. The disappointing performance certainly didn't detract from the kind of season he has put together in being named as a starter for the East's All-Star team for the second straight year.
From veterans Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, who signed last summer as free agents to supplement a supporting cast that included Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Eric Snow, to first-year general manager Danny Ferry and first-year coach Mike Brown, James has enhanced their previous opinions.
Third in the league in scoring (30.9 points a game going into last night) behind Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, and 12th in assists (6.5), James has led the Cavaliers to the second-best record in the Central Division behind the Detroit Pistons and third overall in the Eastern Conference.
Said Brown: "He's done a great job, either making the play, by scoring a basket or making the right pass. We put the ball in his hands a lot. When we played the Lakers and Kobe was there and he happened to miss the last shot, people started to try make something of it. That's OK; that's what they do with superstars."
James is certainly in that category. A few more wins by the Cavaliers and he will start getting some attention for Most Valuable Player, if he hasn't already.
"For the most part, I don't even think about being an MVP candidate," James said. "I've always been that way, going back to high school."
Ferry, who came to the Cavaliers after being assistant general manager of the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, sees similarities between James and Tim Duncan in terms of their competitiveness and leadership. While Duncan tries to live out of the spotlight, James seems to thrive in it.
James particularly enjoyed making a Nike commercial that has been well-received. Shot in Los Angeles over a week in the off-season, it shows a young LeBron, an old LeBron, a business LeBron and a current-day player LeBron sitting around a table acting like, well, LeBron.
"I wanted to get my personalities out, all those four characters are who I'm like on a day-to-day basis," James said last night.
Who does he resemble the most?
"Probably like a kid and an old man, a split between the two," he said. "I'm not forced to be that way. That's just who I am."