LeBron James strode right back into the heart of Cleveland on Thursday night and ripped a 118-90 victory out of the hometown Cavaliers. Returning to the city he represented for his first seven NBA seasons James scored a dizzying 38 points over just three quarters in a dominant performance that both dejected and thrilled the paying customers. The locals were in a frenzy leading up to “The Return of the King” and let their emotions erupt in a spectacular show of deafening jeers and inspired signage, both delivered venomously and unrelentingly whenever their target was on the court. James though, would not be swayed and grew his legend by leading the Miami Heat to an early first half advantage they would not surrender.
And shame on the Cavaliers for playing into his hands.
The Cavaliers team as a whole failed to match James’ ability to deal with the hype surrounding the game and melted quickly under the spotlight the Heat brought to town. Players greeted and joked with James pre-game and had no reaction to him taunting their bench as he scorched them with a ridiculous third quarter performance. James, who scored 24 points in the third stanza on 10 of 12 shooting from the floor, combined with guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh to score 75 of the Heat’s points total on the night. Cleveland fans, if they care to admit it or not, were given as many reasons to respect James last night as to hate him.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s expertly timed presence in the news as an executive on the warpath to investigate the abuses of power (many allowed by his own franchise) James and others may have used to get to Miami, the hate of millions channeled through the 20, 000 or so fans at the Q, the early season struggles of his new team, Bumpgate… none of it big enough to sway a triumphant return but harrowing enough to shake the deer-in-headlight Cavaliers.
TNT analyst and former NBAer Chris Webber lashed out at the passivity of the Cavaliers players and fired a shot at their mental makeup.
“I think you are some of the softest guys in the NBA,” Webber commented during the Halftime Report of the Golden State Warriors versus Phoenix Suns match, which followed the Miami/Cavaliers broadcast. “They soft as wet toilet tissue paper, outside, in the puddle.”
Somewhere Antawn Jamison is squirming. “At least I know how to call a timeout,” he’ll say to himself, but Webber is right. The Cavaliers folded as a team and in doing so, helped rub in the salt James brought for the still fevered wounds in Ohio. James outscored the entire Cavaliers starting five by 10 and almost outscored their entire team in the third frame. Arguably this was Miami’s best performance of the season and could serve as a turning point to what has so far been a disappointing campaign for the star-studded roster.
Doing and saying all the right things in the lead up to the contest had many wondering why James hadn’t just used that same humble approach on his way out of town last summer instead of constructing an elaborate event and television special to stage a public dumping of the Cavaliers. His return felt more real than “The Decision”, a worthier chapter in the legend of LeBron as he quickly reminded Clevelanders exactly what they will be missing, down to the cloud of chalk he iconically threw up into their air for the first time in Quicken Loans Arena without a Cavaliers jersey on his back. That dust seemed to settle on the face of every fan in the building and on some of his old teammates as well. With the crowd it drew ire and raised the stakes. For the players it did the opposite and despite early activity the Cavs were soon overwhelmed by the moment. For a group of veterans that reality should be a major point of concern for new head coach Byron Scott.
A spell? Of some sort perhaps, but it wasn’t James that took the home side out of their game, at least no more than he usually does to an opponent. The Cavs did that themselves, allowing their former leader to do what they knew he would and using nothing unique or even remotely resembling a plan hatched by a team that might know more about him than any other squad on the planet. Worse, they seemed to wither in the same spotlight many of them enjoyed for years when James was a teammate.
Every thing is different now though, a fact the Cavaliers were far too willing to concede to Thursday night.