CLEVELAND (AP)—Trapped in an arena where venom and disgust filled nearly all 20,000 seats, LeBron James(notes) survived. He handled the boos, the “Akron hates you” chants, the obscene taunts coming at him from every direction, from fans he considered family.
At his homecoming, James was an outcast.
He’s returning on Tuesday, and nearly four months since his last visit, the Miami superstar isn’t expecting as much outward hostility.
“Can’t get no worse than it was December 2nd,” James said. “I know that for a fact.”
The hype and the hate aren’t as high this time.
Things have changed dramatically since James last played in Cleveland, the city he spurned last summer as a free agent. Back in December, the Cavaliers were 7-10 and their fans were still frothing at the first chance to publicly vilify James for leaving them before delivering an NBA title.
They vented. He vanquished.
James scored 38 points—24 in the third quarter—and powered the Heat to a 118-90 win, a blowout that triggered a downward plunge by the Cavaliers that hasn’t stopped. At 14-58, they have the league’s worst record and they’ll watch the playoffs this season for the first time in six years.
On the other hand, Miami’s win bonded the Heat, who are 41-14 since their Cleveland stopover and building for a title run.
“That was a huge step for us,” James said. “After that game, we took off.”
Security inside Quicken Loans Arena will again be at finals levels for James’ return. There will uniformed police located near Miami’s bench area and plain clothes officers will be spread throughout the stands to guard against any trouble.
For all the worry of an ugly incident leading up to the Dec. 2 matchup, there was only one arrest and a handful of ejections.
“We’ll have a similar approach to this game and continue to have a very focused plan in place for the security and safety of everyone in the Q,” said Cavaliers spokesman Tad Carper.
James was excited about going home again. Unlike Miami’s last visit, which came one night after the Heat played in Detroit, James came in one day early, giving him enough time to see his two sons and visit with family and friends in his hometown of Akron.
“That’ll be good,” he said.
It might get a little tougher for him after that, but Cleveland coach Byron Scott doesn’t anticipate the atmosphere to be as charged or for James and the Heat to be received as rudely.
“I don’t think it’s going to be quite that crazy,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a zoo like it was last time. It might be two notches below what it was. It’s still going to be a very intense type game. I think fans remember what happened last time we played here and so do we.”
The Cavaliers were subjected to a double dose of humiliation in December.
On top of being pummeled by James last time, they were criticized by their fans for treating him like he was still in the family.
Forward Anderson Varejao(notes), currently sidelined with an ankle injury, was ripped for hugging James before the opening tip and there was outrage that none of the Cavaliers fouled James hard or stood up to him when he started trash talking their bench.
Scott was disappointed in his team’s behavior. He’s confident James won’t be embraced again.
“I know it’ll be different,” he said. “The next time we played them in Miami was different and the next time we played them, we hung in there for a little while, then they got a run in the fourth quarter and blew the game wide open. Both of those games were much more physical, much more aggressive and much tighter.
Scott has noticed a change in the psyche of Cleveland fans. When he first arrived, he sensed their disappointment in James for abandoning them, and hardly a day passed without him being told that the only thing that mattered this season was “to beat Miami.”
Cavaliers fans seem to have moved on.
“I can’t remember the last time somebody said something about LeBron to me,” he said at practice on Monday. “I think even the fans have come to the realization that, hey, it’s the Miami Heat and that’s the way it is.”
Except for their wine-and-gold uniforms, James may not recognize his former team.
Varejao and forward Antawn Jamison(notes) are both out for the season and the Cavaliers traded Mo Williams(notes), Jamario Moon(notes) and released Leon Powe(notes) since December. There are only three healthy players—Daniel Gibson(notes), J.J. Hickson(notes) and Anthony Parker(notes)—who played with James.
“We’re not going to be laughing and joking,” said Davis, who added he has a good relationship with James. “Ain’t going to be a lot of smiles.”
The Heat are prepared for whatever comes their way.
They’ve been booed and subjected to ridicule in every arena this season, a byproduct of the public’s backlash against James, Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) for banding together to build a dynasty in South Florida. There isn’t anything they haven’t seen or heard.
At this point, nothing’s too hot for the Heat.
“We’re expecting shenanigans,” Bosh said. “Usually after the first time, the tension kind of goes away. I’ve been noticing that the second time we go to other road arenas, it’s not as intense as the first time.”
Bosh recalled that leading up to Miami’s first visit that he couldn’t flip on the TV without seeing a special about James being back in Cleveland.
“They had it on every channel,” he said. “But it’s a little bit different this time. It’s all business. But it’ll be interesting to see how it is, though.”
AP sports writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report in Miami.