December 29, 2012 at 1:25 am

Vincent Goodwill

Miami Heat's LeBron James works to keep fire burning

Auburn Hills -- LeBron James took an old photo of Michael Jordan guarding Joe Dumars during the Pistons-Bulls heyday and Photoshopped himself in Dumars' place, making the picture his screensaver on his phone.

It's fitting, since James' only true competition are ghosts — not his contemporaries, or so-called rivals, or players competing against him for the right to hold the Larry O'Brien trophy.

He's reached the point that so few have reached — where being measured against legends is the best or only context necessary. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are just as much his opponents as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are.

"No, I don't but I do know the history of the game," said James when asked if he puts himself in the same strata.

"I never compare myself to the greatest players to ever play. I want to make my own mark."

It's impossible for some to put him there because of his two Finals losses (2007, 2011) but all of the greats have some demerits on their record. Johnson played on a stacked Lakers team and had a cakewalk to the Finals most seasons.

While for every full season he played he only missed the Finals three times, the Lakers were 5-4 in the Finals. Jordan, due to expansion, timing and through no fault of his own, virtually had no competitive equal after his first title in 1991.

Bird has three titles but, similar to Johnson, played on a stacked Celtics team and wasn't even the greatest winner of his own era.

James is "only" one championship into his legacy, but his team should be favored for the foreseeable future, so his ring finger will have some company relatively soon.

"I feel good about where I am," James said at a shoot-around before the Miami Heat were upset, 109-99, by the Pistons at the Palace Friday night, despite James' 35 points. "I have a lot of work to do, I'm still improving and I want to get better. I'm blessed to be able to play the game I love."

Beyond mere numbers

His scoring average (25.6) is his lowest since his rookie year, but he's taking the fewest shots of his career and shooting at a career-best clip (54 percent). The numbers as a whole are still devastating (8.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists) but his overall effect on a game can't be quantified by just numbers.

"I'm very efficient, very comfortable about where I am with my game," he said.

And he appears more comfortable in his own skin, in a basketball sense. While his team could very well be "targeted" by other teams around the league — a sentiment introduced by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in the aftermath of Dwyane Wade's one-game suspension after Wade kicked Bobcats guard Ramon Sessions in the groin — James' triumph last June against the Oklahoma City Thunder released a weight from his shoulders that must've felt like an anvil.

The naysayers have been quieted — at least for the moment — and James, more than any individual star in this modern sports era of Twitter, Facebook and the like, can just play to his own strengths and not worry about being defined by how he left the Cleveland Cavaliers on national TV or how he arrived in Miami, with the championship parade that that lacked a championship.

"No, no, no. We're gonna continue to get that," James said of the negative attention the Heat received in the last two years. "We just try to handle our business on the floor and not worry about what people say. We want to play the game at a high level."

Haters

The Heat haven't received the catcalls and widespread heavy-handed but earned criticism that came after they lost the 2011 NBA Finals in shocking fashion to the Dallas Mavericks — but James' believing they're still America's punching bag is the mark of a champion looking for any type of mental edge.

It's no different than Jordan inventing some perceived slight from an opponent, or Bird or Johnson doing the same. The game within the game is the challenge.

It's tough to be great every night when your greatest challenge is the image of a fantasy that will never come true.

"I let everyone else put me up there or down there, wherever you rank me," James said. "I play at a high level and try to be the best player I can be."

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LeBron James scored 35 points at The Palace on Friday night. / Clarence Tabb, Jr./Detroit News