MIAMI: LeBron James plays in Miami for the first time since leaving the Heat for Cleveland when the Cavaliers visit Thursday to highlight five Christmas holiday NBA clashes being televised globally.
The schedule opens with Washington at New York followed by Oklahoma City at defending NBA champion San Antonio before the latest episode in James’ city-switching saga plays out in Miami, where he led the Heat to the past four NBA Finals and brought the city two NBA crowns.
Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose, two injury-prone stars, could be the focus when the Los Angeles Lakers visit Chicago in the penultimate contest, with the Golden State Warriors, who have the best record in the NBA, visiting the Los Angeles Clippers in the final game of the 67th NBA Christmas calendar.
James spurned his home-region Cavaliers for the Heat in 2010 but after winning his long-sought after first NBA titles with Miami, he returned to Cleveland vowing to bring the city a major sports title, something not seen there since the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 1964.
“The schedule came out after I had decided to come back. The NBA knew something,” James said. “They knew that I was going to go home or stay in Miami, so they knew I would have to play my home team or my old teammates.”
James, who ranks second in NBA scoring with 25.2 points a game and fifth in assists with 7.8 a contest, has sparked the Cavaliers to a 16-10 record, fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Heat, who brought in Luol Deng to try and ease the sting of losing James, are 13-15, seventh in the East. Miami fans could greet James with boos when he takes to the court, or cheers to acknowledge his success with the Heat. Either way, James is looking ahead not back.
“I live in the present,” James said. “Yesterday is over with. The future is unknown.”
Miami’s remaining “Big Three” members are holding their own, with guard Dwyane Wade scoring 22.8 points a game and forward Chris Bosh averaging 21.6.
James’ new “Big Three” partners in Cleveland are faring well also, with Australian guard Kyrie Irving netting 19.7 points a game and big man Kevin Love averaging 16.8 points and 10.5 rebounds a night.
Washington has become a contender behind guard John Wall, who averages 17.8 points and an NBA second-best 10.5 assists a game. The Wizards visit a Knicks squad in a five-game losing slump and a 5-25 record.
Despite 23.7 points a game from Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks — making a 50th Christmas start — are saved from the humiliation of the NBA’s worst record only by Philadelphia 3-23 start.
Bryant, making a record 16th Christmas Day appearance, ranks fourth in the NBA with 24.6 points a game but the Lakers start 8-19 while the Bulls, still easing Rose back into the lineup after knee injuries that kept him out for almost all of the past two seasons, are 18-9 with Spanish star Pau Gasol, who averages 18.0 points and 11.5 rebounds a game preparing to face his former Laker teammates.
Golden State has the best record in the NBA at 23-3 thanks largely to the NBA’s top-scoring backcourt duo of Stephen Curry, with 23.5 points a game, and Klay Thompson, with 21.7 a contest.
But the Clippers, 19-9 for sixth-best in the West, counter with forward Blake Griffin, averaging 23.1 points a game, and guard Chris Paul, who has 18.1 points and 9.8 assists a game.
The reigning champion Spurs, 18-11, provide a balanced attack that is difficult to silence, ignited by French guard Tony Parker with 16.5 points and 5.3 assists a game, both team highs.
Tim Duncan provides 16 points and a club-best 11 rebounds a game while Kawhi Leonard averages 15.2 points and 7.6 rebounds and both Manu Ginobili and Danny Green average more than 12 points a game.