LeBron James delivered one of the greatest games of his career on Monday night, scoring a career-high 61 points in a 124-107 home win over Charlotte.

James needed just 33 shots to get to 61 – in part because he hit his first eight three-pointers of the game – and erupted for 25 points in the third quarter, also a career high. He added seven rebounds and five assists for good measure.

So, about that MVP race . . .

The general consensus is that Kevin Durant, who leads the league with an average of 31.6 points per game, is still ahead of James, but his lead is narrowing.

“He’s got it, but it’s very, very close,” Sports Illustrated NBA writer Chris Mannix said on The Morning Show. “I’m an MVP voter, and if I had to vote today, I would vote for Kevin Durant, but I’m watching (those) Eastern Conference standings very closely.”

The Heat (43-14) trail the Pacers (46-13) by two games for the top seed in the East.

“LeBron, obviously, from an individual basis, is closing that gap very quickly – if he hasn’t closed it already,” Mannix said. “And if he can find a way, if Miami can find a way to eclipse Indiana in the standings – and with two games to go against the Pacers and only two games back, that’s obviously still very much a possibility – I would have to strongly consider voting for LeBron again, just based on what he’s done with so many injuries to that team.”

Dwyane Wade, for example, has missed more than a dozen games while battling knee, ankle and foot injuries.

No matter. James is third in the NBA in scoring (27.5 points), 11th in assists (6.4) – he’s the only non-point guard in the top 16 – and is third among small forwards in rebounding (7.0), just behind Durant (7.7) and Carmelo Anthony (8.5).

“Every time Wade’s gone out, (James has) stepped up and helped them win games,” Mannix said. “Again, if it ended today, I would probably give it to Kevin Durant, but with a month to go in the season, there’s certainly plenty of time for LeBron to get back in that race.”

Speaking of getting back in the race, the Chicago Bulls (33-27) have won 10 of their last 13 games and are currently seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference – just one-half of one game behind Toronto (33-26), which is seeded third.

“They’ve been doing it a multitude of ways, really,” Mannix said. “Defensively, they are still incredibly sharp. They contest everything, they get after you, they only give up around 90 points per game – so they’re really aggressive on the defensive end of the floor.

“And offensively, they’ve been a little better over this last month. They’ve only been averaging around 98, 99 points (since early February), but if you’re playing the Bulls, 98, 99 points per game is like 120 against everybody else – because you simply can’t score that much against them.”

Chicago has also diversified its offense after losing Derrick Rose for the second straight season and trading Luol Deng to Cleveland in what Mannix called “the ultimate non-basketball move.” Six Bulls – Carlos Boozer (14.5 points), D.J. Augustin (13.6), Taj Gibson (13.3), Jimmy Butler (12.8), Joakim Noah (12.0) and Mike Dunleavy (11.2) – are averaging double figures.

“You really have to give Chicago a lot of credit for their mental toughness,” Mannix said.

“You’re going to pay a really strong physical toll going up against the Bulls in the playoffs.”


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