The NBA, clearly versed in the rituals of the holiday homecoming, scheduled the season’s biggest seeing-that-ex-you-broke-it-off-with-on-civil-but-not-friendly-terms matchup during prime time of its famed Christmas lineup.
LeBron James, in his first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, returned to Miami to face Dwyane Wade and the Heat in a matchup replete with all the appropriate, well-scripted nostalgia we expected. The video tribute – an apparent Heat tradition bestowed upon all returning champions – brought chills, as it should. The crowd greeted him with a standing ovation and LeBron, in appreciation, waved. But in the midst of game action, Heat fans were concerned only with the final result, booing LeBron relentlessly, just as Wade envisioned it in an interview with ESPN leading up to the game.
“I had some butterflies coming in,” James admitted before the game. “I played some great basketball here with my teammates. I miss my teammates more than anything. The camaraderie we had…we built something that will last forever.”
If there exists a cliché to smooth over the awkwardness of a divorce of such genial proportions, it’s one familiar to anyone returning home for the holidays: “It’ll be over before you know it.” The evening passed just as we knew it would, with nothing of occasion happening aside from, of course, the game.
Oh, right. The game!
The Heat, who’ve struggled at home as of late – which is being charitable, considering they blew a 23-point lead against the Philadelphia 76ers at American Airlines Arena on Tuesday night – survived with a 101-91 victory. Now, to insinuate that there was a connection between LeBron’s return and Miami stringing out their first complete performance and meaningful victory since Chris Bosh’s calf injury would be unforgivably hokey.
Buuuuuut. When you think of just how the Heat have been losing lately and how they won last night, my sentimentality has to be mitigated a little bit. Right?
Miami’s past few losses were a result of an utter lack of fluidity without Bosh and Josh McRoberts – who is now out for the season – depriving Miami of his agile rotations and ball movement. It’s weird to think of McBob as the command center of a team featuring two Hall of Famers but man, that’s what he was.
In their loss against the Jazz, Wade turned in a season-best 42 points but the rest of the team clanked shot after shot, combining for 29 percent shooting – including a cringe-worthy 2-of-14 from beyond the arc. In their 105-103 heartbreaker against the Washington Wizards, Wade scored 28 and had help – 19 from Luol Deng, 14 from Mario Chalmers and 11 from Udonis Haslem – but he missed some floaters down the stretch and his teammates couldn’t connect on open treys.
Wade went Flash in the first half yesterday, racing to 24 points, and when his dynamism waned down the stretch, Deng – a model for consistency throughout – was there. Danny-Freaking-Granger was hitting daggers with under three minutes left. Chris “Birdman” Andersen, as though reinvigorated by playing alongside LeBron again, was rolling to the rim for alley-oops and hustling on defense like 2013 incarnate. The only way for Miami to win in the absence of Bosh was with a well-rounded effort and finally, that happened.
The events of the night were pure coincidence, sure, but like any coincidence, they lent some credence to an irresistible half-truth: The Heat came full circle; they performed weirdly like a shadow of their championship squad. Take Deng’s final line: 25 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds. If that doesn’t scream “filling a LeBron-sized hole,” I don’t know what does.
Of course, the Cavs’ defense – especially in the absence of Anderson Varejao – doesn’t put up the same resistance as your average contender. They’ve been all over the place as far as defensive rating goes this season, the culmination of a small sample size and the Cavs’ style so far, which remains undefined aside from (and because of) a tendency to play like a completely different team every night.
“We’re not that good right now,” James said. “We’ve won some really good games, we’ve lost some games, but we’re not that good right now.”
In the grand scheme, for Miami, last night was simply a brief, nostalgia-filled respite from what has become a disjointed and injury-ridden season. And for Cleveland, it’ll likely be just another disappointing blip on their journey to figure out what the hell it is they are trying to do.
But man, they’ve got to be happy it’s over.