LeBron James responded to the boos and hostile chants in his return to Cleveland by scoring a season-high 38 points and committing no turnovers to lead the Miami Heat to a 118-90 win over the Cavaliers.
James scored 24 points during the third quarter last night at Quicken Loans Arena and spent the rest of the game watching from the bench as the Heat logged their second-largest margin of victory this season.
It was the most points ever scored by a National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player in his first game against his former team, eclipsing 30-point performances by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against Milwaukee and Allen Iverson against Philadelphia.
“We knew it was going to be a hostile environment with what transpired this offseason,” James, who added eight assists and five rebounds, said during a news conference. “For us to come in and have that bunker mentality, focus on the game and take care of business like we did was great.”
The hype for James’s return started five months ago, when the NBA’s two-time reigning MVP announced July 8 in a nationally televised hour-long ESPN show called “The Decision” that he’d be taking his talents to South Beach.
James, 25, said he was drawn to Miami by friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and his confidence that the All-Star trio could win the NBA championships that eluded him during his seven seasons in Cleveland. James grew up in Akron, Ohio, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Cleveland, and his departure angered a fan base in a city that last won a championship in a major sport in 1964.
Disgruntled Cavaliers fans burned replica jerseys in the streets and owner Dan Gilbert called his exit a “cowardly betrayal” in a letter to fans that drew a $100,000 fine from NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Several times last night, fans in the sellout crowd of 20,562 chanted “Akron hates you!” at James.
“They came out to support the Cavaliers any way possible, to get myself or any of our guys unfocused on what the task was,” said James, who went without a turnover for the first time this season. “I don’t have any hard feelings about this game or from these fans. I wish them the best.”
The NBA and the Cavaliers heightened security at the arena as a precaution. Uniformed and undercover police were stationed near Miami’s bench and along the route that leads to its locker room.
Beer vendors used paper cups instead of plastic bottles that might be used as projectiles. Fans were asked not to bring signs or wear clothing that displayed obscenities or vulgarity toward James or his family.
There were still plenty of anti-James signs in the crowd, among them “Traitors Don’t Leave Legacies” and “Benedict Arnold Returns.” Other sentiments included “The Decision: Stay or Betray?” and “Quitness,” a mocking reference to James’s “Witness” campaign.
Boos rained down from the crowd each time James was shown on the overhead video screens during warm-ups and during player introductions. The jeers increased in volume when James stepped to the scorer’s table and performed his signature pre-game routine of putting talcum powder on his hands and throwing the excess into the air while spreading his arms wide.
“I have the utmost respect for these fans because when I was here they came out and supported us,” James said. “I understand their frustration. Things could have been a little different this summer from both sides, but I’m moving on and I’m happy in the position that I’m in.”
Cavaliers guard Mo Williams, in describing the feelings toward James in Cleveland, said James’ homecoming was “almost like your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding.”
On the court, however, James was seen several times smiling and chatting with former Cleveland teammates during the first half. When the final buzzer sounded, he hugged Williams at midcourt.
The Heat used a 16-0 scoring run to take a 31-23 lead after the opening quarter and increased their advantage to 59-40 at halftime. James and Wade scored 14 points each.
James then hit 12 of 13 shots during the third quarter, when Miami pushed its lead to as much as 38 points.
“I know this court and I’ve made a lot of shots on this court,” said James. “I just wanted to stay aggressive.”
Miami finished with its biggest road win of the season, having entered the game with a 2-5 record away from home.
Wade added 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists for the Heat, who improved to 12-8 overall, including an 11-1 record against teams at or below .500.
The Cavaliers are now 7-11 without James, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
Miami, which opened the season favored by oddsmakers to win the NBA title, is 1-7 against teams with winning records.
“We just have to continue to get better,” James said. “We know that every night we go out it’s going to be a hostile environment. This was a good night for our team.”