NEW ORLEANS -- After tying his season high with 41 points in a 119-114 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, LeBron James wanted to make it clear that his game has developed, not diminished, over the years.
James' scoring outburst came a day after he sat out the Cleveland Cavaliers' 103-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder with soreness in his left knee. Also Thursday, ESPN.com published a pair of stories examining James' place in the league as a 12-year veteran.
One quoted an advance scout as saying, "The LeBron who could dunk on any player at any time is probably gone. ... He's probably never been a better basketball player than he is right now, though." The other noted how James had only six dunks in the Cavs' half-court offense through his first 20 games.
With that context, a reporter asked James whether his 21-point first quarter against the Pelicans -- an 8-for-11 shooting performance that included two impressive dunks -- was his attempt to send a message about his continued stature in the sport.
"It's funny you say that because a family member of mine sent me the same message you just talked about," James said. "You can look at it in a bad way or a good way. I've expanded the rest of my game. I'm still out there making plays. My athleticism, obviously I'm not the 18-year-old kid that I was before. But I can still do the things I need to do to be successful."
The Cavs were not successful Friday, dropping their second straight game to fall to 13-9 after allowing the Pelicans to shoot 55.7 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3, but James' individual output was up to his standards. Other than topping the 30-point plateau for the seventh time this season, James accumulated five rebounds, five assists and a blocked shot while shooting 17-for-24 (70.8 percent) from the field overall. He also was 2-for-2 on 3-point attempts, breaking a tie with former Cavs sharpshooter Mark Price for most 3s in franchise history and giving him sole possession of first place with 804.
While James' game has no doubt regressed in some areas this season -- he's averaging the least amount of points since his rookie season, his lowest field goal percentage since his second season, and the least amount of rebounds and steals per game of his career -- opponents have been quick to dismiss any speculation about the four-time MVP experiencing any slippage.
"I have no idea what those people are talking about," Pelicans coach Monty Williams said when asked Friday whether James had lost a half-step this season. "I don't know how he's changed. He's the best player in the game. So, I don't know where that came from."
Brooklyn Nets coach Lionel Hollins said earlier this week that James is coming into his peak years.
"I don't think he's aged that much," Hollins said. "Twenty-nine is still relatively young. He's still moving into the prime where the mind and the body comes together, and I think that's the adjustment. Is that he understands his own game and how to get to where he needs to be to be effective consistently. And you can tell that he's not in attack mode all the time. He knows that he's got other people on the team that can do this and can do that. It comes from playing in the championship and having confidence and trusting your teammates. And having confidence in yourself.
"When I say confidence, I think it's being assured of your abilities. So, when you guys want to criticize him for not being aggressive and they lose, he understands, 'I still need to do this for our team to win and I can't worry about the negativity that comes along if it doesn't work out, but I know this is best for us.' And I think he's established that very well."
Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who like James started his career as a subpar 3-pointer shooter but finished it making the fourth-most 3s in league history, spoke about James' improvement in that facet of his game.
"I think that LeBron coming in, I don't know how many he shot as a rookie, but that wasn't his strength," said Kidd, who shot 70-for-257 (27.2 percent) from 3 as a rookie, mirroring James' 63-for-217 (29 percent) from deep in his first campaign. "But as time has gone on, whoever it may be criticizes someone's game or he wanted to be the best so you have to work at all aspects. But he's been working on his jump shot, free throws, being able to shoot the 3 with confidence.
"It takes time. There's a process. It doesn't happen overnight. He didn't come into the league as a shooter. He came in as a basketball player and he could do a lot of good things. And when he added the 3-point shot, it just expanded and made him even that much better. So, him being able to pass Mark Price is a compliment but he's not just going to stop there. His sight is to be up there with Ray Allen and Reggie Miller."
Before Friday, James had mostly laughed off questions about the evolution of his game this season. On media day, he was asked whether his offseason weight loss was meant to make him more airborne.
"I'm 29 years old, and I can still fly above the rim. I don't need to lose weight to do that. Not at this point of my career," he said.
In New Orleans, with his 30th birthday just more than two weeks away, James seemed more comfortable pondering his basketball mortality.
"I got so much love for the game, I try to do everything I can [to play] when I can," James said. "When I'm done and I can't play the game no more, I wish I got those games back. But I do got to be smart sometimes. I'm rounding 30 [years old] in a couple days, so we'll see."