Can LeBron James take the on-court lessons he learned from Cleveland and apply them in Miami?
MIAMI -- About the only thing that could go wrong for LeBron James – as well as the Miami Heat, the NBA and the fans waiting in Cleveland – almost happened on Wednesday night.
James hit the deck. Hard. Then he struggled to get to his feet from an awkward fall following a botched block attempt of a Jason Maxiell dunk with 7:53 left in the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons.
As much as Cavaliers fans don't care to see James happy in Miami, odds are they certainly didn't want to see him hurting -- at least not before he gets to Quicken Loans Arena for Thursday night's showdown/homecoming/moment of truth to face his former team for the first time.
But there was James Wednesday night, sprawled flat on his stomach along the baseline near the Heat bench. And an entire team, franchise, arena, city and -- perhaps -- league collectively held their breath.
“That's the only thing you think about,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said of pondering the worst-case scenario after James crashed to the court. “Just get up. You see so many people take hard falls in basketball. Get up, get up, get up. OK. He's fine.”
Exhale. James was on schedule to arrive in Cleveland healthy and hoping to carry Miami's modest momentum into Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday. James got up from that nasty spill, brushed aside his pain and helped the Heat dust off the Pistons 97-72 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Disaster averted. Cleveland, here he comes. Heat fans have grown accustomed to seeing Dwyane Wade tumble to court, get back up and fall yet again. But not James. For a brief moment, there was legitimate concern. Since he arrived in the league, 6-foot-8, 260-pound LeBron has seemed physically invincible. He's been as tenacious as a tight end. But for a moment, the most anticipated game in the NBA this season might have been in jeopardy.
Later, James humbled himself enough to admit that there's at least one thing he's unable to do on a basketball court: Fall.
“I just don't know how to,” James said, who landed on his wrists but managed to brace his fall by getting one foot down before he stumbled to the court. “When I go down, there's a little hurt.”
James recounted the fall as he sat beside Wade during the Heat's postgame press conference. He made light of the situation by taking a playful jab at Wade for his tumbling skills.
“He mastered the fall,” James said of Wade. “He falls even when he doesn't have to. He must have had a Slip-n-Slide thing when he was a kid or something. He likes sliding all over the place. I don't like to slide, so I stay on my feet.”
The most productive thing the Heat did on Wednesday night was maintain their footing after stumbling through their most difficult stretch of the season last week. Miami is now two lopsided victories removed from the LeBron-Spoelstra Bump-gate. The Heat took another step in distancing themselves from that players-only meeting in Dallas last Saturday and from reports of player dissatisfaction with coach Erik Spoelstra's approach on offense.
For now, they've diverged from some of the disarray, but aren't quite clear of the controversy.
And the Heat owes a big “Thank You” to the league's schedule-makers, who delivered consecutive games this week against the John Wall-less Wizards and the spark-less Pistons.
James walked out of the arena on his own two feet, standing firm in his focus and vowing to take a fearless approach into an emotional game against his former team. Wade believes James is not only strong enough to get up from just about any fall, but also determined enough to block out any of the potential distractions he might face Thursday in Cleveland.
“He's able to take falls,” Wade said. “He's able to take hits. I mean, look at him. He's got shoulder pads on right now. He's a big guy. So I don't really worry too much.”
Apparently, James isn't too worried either.
Before Wednesday's game, the Akron, Ohio native talked about taking trips back to his home state after he announced his free agency decision to sign with the Heat. Concerns for his safety didn't stop James from returning to Akron to hold charity events, including his Bike-a-Thon last summer.
“You're having a community event like that, you want to make sure everything goes right for the protection of the kids, mostly,” James said. “I had 450, 475 kids coming. So it was more of a hope everything goes right for them, so that they could be happy and grateful. So I was nervous getting up that morning and wondering if everything was going to go right for the event.”
James biked through parts of downtown Akron without incident alongside several young riders. That wasn't necessarily the case in his next post-Decision public appearance in Ohio, when he went to an amusement park about a 90-minute drive west of Cleveland.
James was heckled as he was escorted through the park by security.
“You hear minor stuff,” James said. “But for the most part, I've been back. I was there for the whole summer after I signed here, working out and being in the city of Akron.”
But that's Akron, where Many folks have unconditional love for LeBron. Cleveland is different. One city was disappointed he left. The other was downright outraged he abandoned it. One city mourned. The other was scorned.
“I know it's going to be a little bit different when you pack 20,000 people into one tight atmosphere with a closed roof,” said James, who compared his return to Cleveland to Brett Favre's first game back in Green Bay as a visitor. “I think I'll probably feel the same way. It's going to be a lot of butterflies.”
Thursday night against the Cavaliers will be far from a stroll through an amusement park for James. That's why it was so important that he got back on his feet after Wednesday's fall. James is going to need his legs under him to stand up to the hostility he's certain to face on that court in Cleveland.