MIAMI: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade started the Christmas game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat with a hug. Before the third quarter started, they sat on the scorer’s table joking—as if they were still teammates.
When it was over, with Wade and the Heat winning, 101-91, it ended the same way it started—with James and Wade hugging.
It was difficult to tell who won and who lost, their friendship superseding the results of a regular-season game.
Wade scored 24 of his game-high 31 points in the first half and outplayed his good friend when it mattered. James, in his first game in Miami this season, had a team-high 30 points and added four rebounds and eight assists, but he was 10-for-18 from the free throw line, missing a chance to help the Cavaliers steal a road game.
“Coming into the league, I haven’t really had a rival opponent, and the closest thing I had to that was the years we had when we were going against each other when he was in Cleveland the first time,” Wade said. “All four years [together in Miami]were amazing, and we won’t take anything away from that. It was good to see him on the other side of the coin too because he is going to bring out the best in you.”
Each team needed to win. The Heat were coming off a mystifying home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, and the Cavaliers need to take more positive steps and prove they are a team capable of winning a road game against a supposedly inferior team.
But it was Cleveland’s first game without center Anderson Varejao, who is out for the season after tearing his left Achilles tendon in Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Varejao’s absence spotlighted Cleveland’s need for more depth inside, and the Heat exposed the Cavaliers’ suspect defense, scoring 60 points in the first half.
Cavaliers coach David Blatt put Shawn Marion back in the starting lineup and moved Kevin Love to center. Blatt said for the short-term, he will make lineup decisions based on matchups.
Those are issues will try to resolve as the season progresses, but the game was more about moving on — for James and Heat fans, some of whom want James to say the words “thank you.”
Short of saying those exact words, it’s clear James, who conceded he had butterflies entering the arena, appreciated his time with the Heat and in Miami.
“I played some great basketball here,” James said. “I miss my teammates more than anything. The camaraderie that we had and the guys that are still here and the guys that are not still here like Shane [Battier] and Ray [Allen]—I still have Mike [Miller] with me, and [James Jones] — but all the guys, we built something that will last forever.”
Heat fans cheered for James during the introduction of the starting lineup and gave him a standing ovation during a video tribute in the first quarter. He said it was an emotional game. “It was tough to play under those circumstances . . . A lot of emotions came back,” James said.
It’s interesting. In James’ two most significant games this season, he has not been at his best. In the season opener against the New York Knicks in his first game back at Quicken Loans Arena with the Cavaliers, James had eight turnovers. He missed eight free throws against the Heat.
“You are so used to playing just regular-season games and then you have to play one like this (and) my first home game when I went back home,” James said. “Very difficult.”
They booed James the remainder of the game, striking the right tone: appreciation for what he did during his four years with the Heat — two championships and four consecutive Finals appearances — and recognition that as a Cleveland Cavalier, James is the opposition now.
And Wade has his rival back. They have played against each other 23 times with James winning 13. They’ve had some great games over the years. In 2009-10, they both scored more than 30 points in two games. In 2009, James had 42 points and Wade 41 in a Cleveland victory. In 2006, James scored 47 points and Wade 44 in another Cleveland victory.
It’s rare that such good friends team up and put together four incredible seasons. Wade and James found a way to make it happen, starring on the court together, sharing massive disappointments and immense joys.
They were again stars of the show on Thursday, this time on different teams and with Wade getting the best of his good friend.