INDEPENDENCE — Call it “LeBron James Returns to Cleveland, Take 2.”
It hasn’t received nearly the hype and doesn’t appear to contain the same venom, but James’ second trip to Quicken Loans Arena as a member of the Miami Heat has to go better for the Cavaliers and their fans than the first.
We’ll find out for sure tonight at The Q, but from a Cavs perspective it’s hard to imagine this meeting going worse than the Dec. 2 encounter.
With 20,562 rabid fans on hand to boo James’ every move, the two-time reigning league MVP poured in what was then a season-high 38 points as Miami cruised to a 118-90 victory.
“It can’t get no worse than it was Dec. 2,” James said Sunday in Miami when asked about the Cleveland fans. “I know that. I know that for a fact.”
A sellout crowd will likely be on hand again tonight — many fans are expected to bring anti-James signs and scream at the 26-year-old who spent the first seven years of his NBA career in Cleveland before bolting for Miami — but the Akron native said the days leading up to his second game at The Q didn’t have nearly the same hoopla.
“Before, they had ESPN specials,” James said. “I couldn’t even watch TV. Every channel, they had a special about LeBron going back to Cleveland. But it’s a little different this time. It’s all business. It’ll be interesting to see how it is, though.”
It’s different because of what happened the first time and the fact the NBA-worst Cavs (14-58) continued to spiral downward.
James, who made 15 of 25 shots while adding five rebounds and eight assists in that initial meeting, scored his 38 points in just 30 minutes in a game the Heat led 59-40 at the half, 95-60 after three periods and by as many as 38 points.
“They took something from us,” Cleveland power forward J.J. Hickson said.
In many ways, James and the Heat (51-22) took this Cleveland team’s pride, maybe even its manhood.
The Cavs, who were roundly criticized when players like Anderson Varejao and former point guard Mo Williams joked around with James, never got it back, as that game seemed to zap the life out of them.
It was the second game of what turned into a 10-game losing streak, and that skid eventually grew to dropping 36 out of 37 when Cleveland lost an NBA-record 26 games in a row after beating New York on Dec. 18.
“To say that was a defining moment in us having a back slide, I just don’t think so,” Cleveland coach Byron Scott said following practice Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “We just started playing some bad basketball and might have lost a little confidence.”
Following their first meeting with the Heat, the Cavs went to Minnesota and lost to a bad Timberwolves team by 34 points. Injuries started popping up shortly after, and a number of lopsided losses followed.
But things will be different tonight in at least one aspect, veteran point guard Baron Davis promised last week.
“I know we’re not going to be laughing and joking,” said Davis, who watched the first Heat game on television as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. “That’s all I can say. There ain’t gonna be no smiles, you know?
“It will be a different game,” he added. “We’ll have a different mentality, a different attitude than in the games before that I’ve seen (the Cavs) play against him.”
Davis toned down his comments a bit Monday, but did say, “We’re not coming out to be friends with anybody. We’re coming out to win a basketball game.”
Cavs guard Daniel Gibson, one of James’ closest friends when they were teammates, exchanged some words with the small forward in the first meeting.
“They took it to us,” Gibson said. “I didn’t take well to that.”
Like Davis, Gibson said there would be no joking around with James tonight.
“That ain’t going to happen,” he said. “We can definitely rule that out.”
Asked if he were still friends with his former teammate, Gibson said, “You can call it what you want. We don’t speak on a normal occasion, but I have nothing against him. It’s about what I want to do to him (on the court) and what we want to do as a franchise.”
Vowing not to be buddy-buddy with James isn’t the only thing that’s different this time around. The Heat, which also beat Cleveland 101-95 and 117-90 in Miami, will be facing a decimated Cavs squad.
Varejao is out for the season with a foot injury, as is Antawn Jamison with a broken finger. Williams is now a member of the Clippers, while Joey Graham, who started at small forward Dec. 2, hardly ever plays.
On the flip side, the Cavs played much better against the Heat in their two meetings in Miami, particularly in the first one, and have at least managed to stay in most of their games over the past month or so.
“Like anyone who runs into a bully the first time, you pee down your leg,” Scott said last week. “Then you realize the bully ain’t that tough and you stand up to him.”
While James will once again be cast in the role of villain tonight, it’s hard to imagine the crowd being as vociferous as it was in the first meeting at The Q.
“I can’t remember the last time somebody said something about LeBron to me,” said Scott, who heard comments every day when he first took the job. “Even the fans have come to the realization he’s a Miami Heat. That’s the way it is.
“I knew the first time it was going to be crazy,” the coach added. “The second time, I don’t know.”
James vs. Cavs
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound James, who is unlikely to three-peat as MVP, is averaging 26.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists for the Heat. In three games against the Cavs, the Akron native has averaged 27.7 points on 50 percent shooting (27-for-54), 8.3 rebounds and 6.0 assists. James had 21 points, 13 boards and five assists as the Heat narrowly beat the Cavs in Miami on Dec. 15, then put up 24 points, four rebounds and eight assists in a 27-point win on Jan. 31.
Scott said Cavs rookie big man Samardo Samuels, who suffered a sprained right wrist in the third quarter Sunday against Atlanta, won’t play tonight. Samuels underwent an MRI on Monday. X-rays taken at The Q on Sunday were negative.
Scott reiterated he would start Davis when the veteran point guard tells him he’s ready, but Davis said after practice he’s content coming off the bench at the moment.
Former Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who missed seven games with a strep infection in his foot, returned to action Sunday in Miami’s win over the Rockets.
As of Monday afternoon, a limited amount of tickets remained for tonight’s game.
The Cavs have designated their April 8 home game against Chicago as “Joe Tait Appreciation Night.” Tait, who underwent heart surgery in January, broadcast his first game of the regular season Sunday and is slated to do radio play-by-play for the team’s four remaining home games.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.