CLEVELAND — Should LeBron James win his fifth NBA Most Valuable Player award this season, the Cavaliers star might have a sore elbow to thank.
As James worked on his game this summer, he said an inflamed elbow didn’t allow him to get the regular extension on his shot and he was forced to change his mechanics.
The results have been so spectacular, James could be voted MVP for the first time in five years.
His 25-foot step-back 3-pointer with 16.6 seconds remaining was the game-deciding shot in Wednesday night’s 101-95 win over the Sacramento Kings at Quicken Loans Arena.
It not only capped a 32-point night in which James fell one assist shy of his third triple double of the year, but it enabled the Cavs to tie the franchise record for consecutive regular-season victories with 13.
Scoreless in the first quarter, James made 12 of 18 field goals, including 5-of-8 from 3-point range.
The performance improved his season shooting percentages to .587 overall and .430 from long range, the best of his 15-year career.
James’ 3-point percentage is blowing away the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry (.381) and the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving (.373). James is nearing Kyle Korver territory (.438).
“I’ve been around some guys who’ve had amazing years,” Korver said. “I’ve been playing with him, and Derrick (Rose) when he was MVP, Allen Iverson when I was young. But he’s taken this to a whole new level.
“It’s amazing to have a better than a front-row seat, because I’m usually on the court next to him somewhere.”
Korver is fifth in league history in 3-pointers made, so his words carry weight.
After James scored 23 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter of a home victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 22, Korver noted the results of James’ offseason work.
“My man has worked his way into being a real shooter,” Korver said then. “Like, for real. His fundamentals, he has worked on it in this last year. You can tell he thinks about it, he studies the game, he studies his own mechanics, he puts in a ton of time and he’s confident shooting that shot. It looks really, really great to me and I watch these things.”
Korver agreed with the suggestion that it could be as simple as the changes James made because of the elbow. James said that once the elbow swelling started going down in late September, he stuck with the adjustments.
“That helped me with my shot, too, when I had an elbow injury,” Korver said Nov. 22. “If you shoot it just a little bit wrong, it hurts. So you’ve got to shoot it perfect for it not to hurt.
“You’ve got to retrain your mind to think, ‘This is the right way to shoot it.’ A lot of it is attention to detail. If you’re going to be great at something, details really matter.”
This is only the second season of James’ career in which he’s shot over .400 from 3-point range. The other was 2012-13 with the Heat, when he shot .406. That was the sixth consecutive season he’d raised his field-goal percentage and second in a row when he’d improved his long-range number.
James said the offseason improvement was necessary because “shooting the ball is what this league has kind of turned into.”
Teammates and opponents have noticed.
“He’s shooting with a lot of confidence, not thinking about it. He’s really working on it in practice. He’s really, really shooting it well. Probably the best since I’ve been around him, day in and day out,” Kevin Love said.
“As Kyle said, he’s a shooter now. He’s for real. He’s legit,” Wade said. “Every time he shoots it we expect it to go in, but it’s going in. We know there’s going to be a time where maybe one or two don’t go in, but we’re living with it every time.”
Opposing coaches are just as amazed.
“LeBron is playing as well as I’ve ever seen him,” the Bulls’ Fred Hoiberg said Monday. “He’s shooting the ball at a career number. He’ll play 41 minutes, then you see him do an interview after the game and he’s not even breathing hard. It’s crazy what he’s still able to accomplish as effortlessly as he does it.”
In his fifth year in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said he’s come to expect the best from James.
“He’s a phenomenal player and I think he takes a lot of pride in being the best,” Budenholzer said on Nov. 30. “If that means shooting better or defending better or passing more or rebounding more, he has a knack or a determination to be that guy.”
Although he turns 33 on Dec. 30, James said Saturday his best could be yet to come.
“I don’t put a ceiling on how well I can continue to get better and better,” he said. “I just don’t feel like I’ve reached my potential.”