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Saturday, February 18, 2012
Successful return to Cleveland for LeBron

By Brian Windhorst

CLEVELAND - LeBron James does not come a la carte; when you get him you get the entire package. The Cleveland Cavaliers learned this quite well. The Miami Heat are figuring it out.

James had yet another fantastic all-around game Friday night, scoring 28 points with five rebounds and five assists in just 30 minutes. The Heat smacked the Cavs 111-87 for their fifth consecutive road blowout.

There have been hundreds of games just like this in James’ career. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said James is playing at an MVP level, as many of James’ coaches, and numerous opposing coaches, have said after such performances during his career.

Meanwhile, outside the lines, James had multiple fan bases cheering and cursing him at the same time, front office executives and team owners were wondering just what the heck he was thinking, and he was dominating the headlines.

This all included, at no extra charge, in the aforementioned James superstar bundle. None of it original or surprising. Let the record show that the Cavs were quite ready to sign up for five more years of it back in 2010. The Heat, and several others, knew that it came along with the 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists he averages, plus sellout crowds every night. Or at least they should’ve known.

If the Heat weren’t upset with James’ comments this week about playing again someday in Cleveland, which James simply said were “truthful,” they should have been. Plenty of their fans certainly were, to the point that James gave a series of homages to them Friday to try and soothe things over -- the last being his postgame interview with Heat television in which he listed a series of South Florida communities he was looking forward to getting back to after three days in Cleveland.

It was a little early on the standard schedule for James to start publicly flirting with free agency, two and a half years before he can become a free agent. But the Heat can’t seriously claim this was unexpected. Last time around he started about 20 months early, tossing some red meat to fans in New York during a now-infamous news conference at Madison Square Garden in 2008.

Some batting of the eyes convinced the Knicks to tear their roster to shreds at the prospect. Just about the time, not ironically, Pat Riley started plotting what eventually became what’s been called the greatest free agent maneuver in league history.

It was a coup for sure, a two-time MVP in the prime signing the longest contract of his career. It came with strings, though, and James has only just started tugging on them.

James’ talk about playing for the Cavs again and his hope that the fans would re-embrace him did not come with the timeline. Though plenty seemed to jump to the assumption he was talking about 2014, James did not say or even imply that.

It would be a mistake to believe that James already has a plan in place to bolt to another city, even his hometown, and complete an unforeseen if not poetic career arc. But it would also be a mistake to consider that this isn’t just the first of many times that James will hint, insinuate or flirt with the future as the Heat find themselves frustrated. Just like his tremendous scoring, defending and passing ability, this has been proven to be as a part of James’ personality.

James expanded on his answers about Cleveland over two days while the Heat were in the midst of playing their best string of regular season games since he signed up. He’s playing some of the best and most efficient ball of his career, Dwyane Wade is on an expanding hot streak as he’s shooting 56 percent over the last 10 games, Mario Chalmers is having the best season of his career, Shane Battier is out of his shooting slump and now sizzling, and Mike Miller has played 18 straight games without an injury. The Heat finished a road trip 5-1 with five straight wins by 15 or more points.

And James was talking about playing for the Cavs again someday.

Down the hall, James’ former team was hardly thrilled with his latest round of conjecture. James’ hinting about returning to Cleveland to play certainly lit up the talk show phone lines and dominated local newscasts for the last few days.

It was delicious fodder -- James always is because his ties to the area, his great but championship-less years with the team and the terms of his departure. For many Cavs fans the statements created a visceral reaction, churning up emotions that had recently finally started to ebb 20 months after his departure.

For the Cavs themselves, this was not good for business. Just as they couldn’t predict what would happen in 2010 when the rumblings started in 2008, they’ve learned it’s hard to rely on James’ words when he’s talking fast and loose about his future. They are starting something new with a new player they hope will replace James as their cornerstone in point guard Kyrie Irving.

The franchise already spent two years doing everything in its power to get James to sign with it, spending wildly and making poor short-term trades and hoping all of it would work out. The Cavs don’t need to be reminded it was a failed enterprise. They also aren’t planning on spending the next two years or three or four following that dream again.

Fully in the middle of getting on with their lives, James’ words were absolutely no help. They can’t and won’t say so to microphones but they feel much the same way as James does about the future and, in fact, have for some time. They’d never rule out a possible James return no matter what’s been said or done. It just won’t be dictating their lives.

Are these moments where James can destabilize hundred million dollar operations and send tens of thousands of fans into various fits with a few sentences worth it?

Friday the Heat looked amazing, reaffirming their position as title favorite as they improved to 82-30 since they signed James. The Cavs, looking young and still in the beginning stages of their post-James rebuild, are 30-80 without him.

The answer is self-evident.