Heat 118 Cavaliers 90
CLEVELAND — LeBron James insisted it wasn’t personal, even if it was for 20,000 or so fans.
“It’s a basketball game,” James said after scoring 38 points to silence an angry crowd and lead the Miami Heat to a 118-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night.
It was James’ first game back in the city where he played for seven years before leaving via free agency, angering disbelieving fans who considered him one of their own.
“I don’t hold any grudges,” said the player once heralded as “King James” by most of those same irate fans. “They came out to support their team.”
Before the game, fans peppered him with obscene chants and booed every time he appeared on the giant monitors over midcourt. They held up signs that read, “Quitness” and “Play Like It’s Game Five” — a reference to his Nike marketing campaign and also last season’s pivotal game in the playoff series with Boston, when many felt James had quit on the Cavaliers.
There were five guys wearing a single letter each on their white T-shirts that spelled out: LeBum.
He said he tried to smile and shrug off the insults.
“I just tried to keep a clear head,” he said. “It’s nothing personal from myself to these fans. It won’t be. Ever.”
Dwyane Wade added 22 points, James Jones 18 and Chris Bosh 15 for the Heat, a star-studded team which has seldom played like one in going 12-8 so far.
“It was a great collective effort,” said coach Erik Spoelstra. “This is the first time I have seen this connection all year long.”
Daniel Gibson scored 21 for the Cavaliers, who have lost six of eight and now play seven of their next eight on the road.
James had 10 more points than Cleveland’s starting lineup.
He had half the points in a 16-0 first-quarter run that immediately knocked the Cavaliers back on their heels.
Ahead by 19 at the half, the Heat poured it on by shooting 73 per cent from the field in the third quarter, with James scoring 24 points while going 10 of 12 and Wade hitting all four of his attempts. The lead stretched to 30 points and beyond.
“I thought he played great,” Cleveland coach Byron Scott said of James. “Simple as that. I thought he played great.”
James sat on the bench for all of the fourth quarter, with dozens of security guards and police lining the team’s entrance to the court and guarding against objects thrown at him. After the final seconds sifted away, he left without incident.
The Heat were happy that things turned out so well for their star swingman.
“One thing we preach a lot about in Miami is family,” Wade said. “This is our brother.”
Throughout the game, James frequently bantered with his former coaches with the Cavaliers and even talked to fans at courtside. The native of nearby Akron smiled while shooting free throws, in spite of what seemed like the entire arena chanting, “Akron hates you!”
“I turned one time and he was down there talking,” Scott said. “That’s what he does most games. He talks to most guys on the bench.”
The early spurt left a crowd of 20,562 with nothing left to cheer except James’ occasional missed shot. He didn’t miss many, finishing 15 of 25 from the field, to go with eight assists and five rebounds.
He never officially apologized in so many words to Cleveland and the Cavaliers fans. But he did express his appreciation for the way he was treated during his younger years as a pro.
“So many things went through my mind,” James said. “I have nothing bad to say about these fans at all. We grew from the year before I got here, a 17-win season to the last two years I was here, we had the best team in the league in the regular season. I understand their frustration. I was frustrated also because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to. I wish this organization and these fans, who are great, the best.”
Cleveland native and game show host Drew Carey, Browns icon Bernie Kosar, Indians slugger Travis Hafner and most of the current Browns were cheered wildly when, just before the start, they slowly made their way to courtside seats. Cincinnati Bengals receiver Terrell Owens even was in attendance.
By far, the loudest cheers were saved for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who had ripped James after his decision, saying he quit on the Cavaliers during their season-ending playoff series with the Celtics last spring.
It didn’t take long for the Heat to end the suspense once the game began.
Cleveland led 17-12 early, but James led the 16-0 surge that all but put the game on ice. He scored on a reverse layup in traffic to put the Heat up 19-17 at the 3:10 mark and they never looked back.
“It was a very good atmosphere,” Spoelstra said. “It felt like a playoff game for us.”
Before wrapping up in a warm coat and a scarf — two things he’ll never need in his new home — and walking into the freezing Cleveland night, James offered one more olive branch to the people who once thought of him as “The Chosen One.”
“I have the utmost respect for these fans,” he said. “They came out every night I was here and supported us. I understand things could have been a little different this summer for both sides. I’m moving on and I’m happy in the position I’m in.”