Miami (34-14) at Orlando (31-18)

By TIM REYNOLDS, AP Sports Writer Wednesday, Feb 2, 2011 Tipoff: 8:00 pm EST Thu Feb 3, 2011

MIAMI (AP)—LeBron James(notes) gave a sympathetic nod to his past, then looked eagerly toward his immediate future.

First, quiet words of support for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Then, a not-so-subtle message sent to the Orlando Magic.

After the Miami Heat beat his former Cleveland franchise on Monday night, James offered a reminder that he’s still scorned by things that were said about him last summer when he left the Cavaliers and joined Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) in South Florida.

But the target wasn’t Cleveland—where people burned his jerseys.

It was Orlando—the franchise that questioned his competitiveness.

So when the Heat next play Thursday at the Magic, chances are it’ll be a game that has a little bit of extra meaning for both sides.

“The simple fact that it’s a division opponent, that means a lot,” James said. “Trying to win your division is very key. And also playing exceptionally well on the road is definitely key. That definitely helps later on in the season. And being an Orlando team that basically said a lot of things about us in the offseason, that definitely adds a little bit to the fire.”

What James was referring to was the back-and-forth sparked by something Magic President Otis Smith said last July, just after the three stars aligned in Miami.

Smith’s quote: “I thought he was, I guess, more of a competitor.”

Heat President Pat Riley responded by saying that was an “absolutely stupid” remark. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy jumped in by wondering why Riley thought it was his place to make moral judgments. By the time the teams actually got around to playing in October, things cooled to a simmer, though James’ comment Monday night served notice that all has not been forgotten.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” James said.

Miami will take a 3 1/2 -game lead in the Southeast Division over the Magic into Thursday’s matchup. Both teams are off until then. It’ll be the third meeting of the season; the first two were split, each club winning at home.

It’s way too early to talk about magic numbers: If Miami wins, it would need a combination of 29 more victories and Magic losses to eliminate Orlando from the division race.

Nonetheless, it’s a big game, if for no other reason than Miami has lost nine of its last 11 games in Orlando.

“Should be fun,” James said.

The fact that James had some sharp words to say after Monday’s game was no surprise.

The fact that he didn’t direct them toward Cleveland was.

James had plenty of opportunities to kick the downtrodden franchise he scorned last summer, both before and after the Heat sent the Cavaliers to their 21st straight loss. Instead, he wished the fans and the franchise well, said he carried no ill will for how the aftermath of “The Decision” played out, and even pulled Cleveland’s Manny Harris(notes) aside for an on-court pep talk after the game.

They’ve known each other since Harris was in high school, but the Cavs’ rookie was still surprised by the gesture, which came just after the final buzzer.

“He was probably one of the first guys who did it all year,” Harris said.

Still, James found himself in the midst of yet another batch of criticism on Monday. He was lounging at home with longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson before the Cleveland game, watching television analysts discuss the final moments of Miami’s win at Oklahoma City on Sunday.

The deciding play of that game came with less than 10 seconds remaining. With Miami down by one, Mike Miller(notes) got a key offensive rebound and sent the ball out to James, who quickly passed to Eddie House(notes) for an open 3-pointer. House made the shot, Miami went ahead to stay … and James found himself criticized anyway for not taking the shot himself.

“Either play is the right play,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “For our team right now, that extra pass was absolutely a poignant moment. It really was.”

James had given the ball up to House two nights earlier in another key end-of-game situation, and House came through then as well to help Miami beat Detroit. Plus, the buzzword for the Heat of late has been “trust”—and James said making the extra pass with the game on the line showed the trust he had in teammates like House.

Given all that, James found the reaction offered by some analysts after the play in Oklahoma City comical.

“I know how the game is played,” James said. “Most times, the guy that is making comments has never, ever, ever been in that situation, so they wouldn’t know what to do. So it’s not a big deal.”

To him, facing Orlando seemed like a much bigger deal.

“Can’t just sit here and say it’s any old game,” James said. “Because it’s not.”

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Thursday, Feb 3