It was not a happy homecoming, but it was a spectacular one as Le-Bron James scored a season-high 38 points to lead the Miami Heat to a convincing 118-90 triumph over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
Returning to Ohio for the first time since moving to Miami to form a super team with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, James received the hostile reception he expected from fans who booed him relentlessly from the moment he skipped onto the court until the final buzzer.
A bitter crowd arrived hoping that the Cavaliers might humble the Heat and make James regret his decision. Instead it was merciless James, who delivered the type of performance that only reminded Cleveland of what they were missing as he dropped 24 points in a sensational third quarter that put the contest out of reach.
Not wanting to rub salt into Cleveland’s wounds, James would spend the fourth quarter watching from the bench, savoring the Heat’s third straight win as a dejected crowd trickled out of the arena.
“We came here with one goal and that was to win a basketball game,” said James, who also had eight assists and five rebounds to round out a productive night. “We did that. This was the most complete game that we had all year from start to finish.”
For seven seasons and 619 games, James had been lavished with love by Cleveland, but on Thursday, the Quicken Loans Arena shook with boos each time he touched the ball.
The heckling reached a crescendo just before the opening tipoff when James stepped over to the scorer’s table, poured powder onto his hands and tossed it into the air — repeating a ritual that had become his signature during his time in Cleveland.
While the Cavaliers say they have moved on, their fans have had a much tougher time letting go, having watched the local boy grow from a high school phenomenon into a two-time league most valuable player and a once-in-a-generation talent.
However, the game provided some closure for a jilted city and a chance to vent their anger that had been building ever since James went on national TV in July and said he was “taking my talents to South Beach.”
The game was played under heightened security, but could not stop a hostile crowd from sending James a clear message.
Sprinkled throughout the arena were hundreds of signs mocking James, while in one section eight fans stood up, each wearing a white T-shirt with one bold black letter spelling out, “BETRAYED.”
“Seven great years, I loved every part of it,” James said. “I loved every moment from when I was an 18-year-old kid to a 25-year-old man. I have the utmost respect for this franchise, the utmost respect for these fans and now just continue the greatness for myself in Miami and get better every day.”
The game attracted massive interest, with even US President Barack Obama offering up a thought on James’ homecoming, saying: “It’s going to be brutal.”
If the angry welcome affected James, it did not show in his play, particularly in the opening quarter when the jeering was its most ferocious.
James scored 10 points in the first quarter to help stake the Heat to a 31-23 advantage. Miami cruised to a 59-40 lead by halftime, taking some of the energy and venom out of the crowd.