About 90 minutes before tipoff of the LeBron James(notes) Homecoming Game between the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, I asked a joking-but-not-really question on Twitter: "Hey, non-Cavs fans: We secretly all want Bron to throw up a double-nickel tonight, right?"
It was, at heart, a joke — that's mostly what I do on Twitter — but there was more than a kernel of honesty there, too. It wasn't that I wanted to see Cleveland suffer; on the contrary, like many fans and observers on Thursday night, I was hopeful that the Cavs would feed off of a phenomenally energetic home crowd, exploit some of the myriad weaknesses the Heat had shown in stumbling to an 11-8 start and provide us with some compelling on-court drama to pair with the compelling off-court storyline. Sadly, as we saw, that didn't happen.
Really, I just wanted to see the monster break out of his cage, the beast unleashed. I wanted to see LeBron James actually be the player we all remember him being before he bailed out on the Cavs in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last summer. What can I say? Maybe I'm selfish.
I mean, LeBron's had 30-point games and made spectacular plays this season, but it just hasn't really felt the same — when I see him zip a no-look pass on the button, successfully make a play he had no business attempting or move more quickly than any man his size should be able to, it's felt like I'm only seeing a thumbnail sketch of the true scope of his talent, or just reaching back for a dim recollection of his full brilliance. Like there's some sort of restrictor plate on his ass-kicking.
Obviously, it's not like James has been a stiff — going into Thursday night, he was averaging 23.4 points, 7.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game — and obviously, the ongoing process of figuring out how to effectively create offense alongside a similarly styled superstar in Dwyane Wade(notes) has a lot to do with him not looking quite like himself. Still, though, something's seemed different, and as a result, I've felt like I'm forgetting how rapturous a force of nature LeBron James can really be. I don't think I'm alone there.
And then, stuff like Thursday night happens, and you go, "Oh, right." You watch him blow past defenders, elevate, go up and under the rim, get thwacked across the head and finish with a reverse over defenders' outstretched arms. You watch him get out on the break, elevate for an alley-oop, get pushed off-course by a defender, reach out to corral the pass one-handed and push a layup off the window for the foul and an and-one. You watch him do these things like they're involuntary actions, like breathing or growing hair, and you go, "Oh, right." (Well, maybe not growing hair in LeBron's case.)
You watch him score 24 points in the third quarter, a Heat franchise record, getting buckets however he wants them, and you remember that before we (justifiably) branded him a quitter and a sellout and a charlatan and, well, a brand, we mostly referred to him as an amalgamation of basketball talents unlike anything we'd ever seen. Frankly, it felt good to remember that.
Independent of wondering whether he'd apologize for "The Decision," how his ex-teammates would greet him or if the city of Cleveland would burn to ash around the Q, it felt good to see LeBron James being an unstoppable force. It felt especially good to see that happen when the eyes of the world were on him, when he was walking into as hostile a regular-season environment as he'd ever faced, and when an awful lot of people thought he'd turtle up, play distributor and let his superior teammates carry the night against an inferior Cavaliers roster. But he didn't. He played to his level. He dominated. He reminded.
Maybe I'm buying a one-way ticket to the firepit way down south by saying this, but I really hope he keeps doing it. The game's more fun to watch when the transcendent actually transcend. As long as you're not rooting for the guys in the other jerseys, that is.
- LeBron James