Miami fans were hurt when LeBron James left.
When LeBron chose the Heat in 2010 it wasn’t just bitter Clevelanders that turned on him and burned his jerseys — although Northeast Ohio did it with more venom — but the entire nation or sports fans called out LeBron for perceived betrayal. He handled the exit about as poorly as one could with the televised “Decision” followed by a pep rally in Miami and that turned off much of the country. LeBron’s popularity plummeted (at least at first, until the titles rolled in).
And Heat fans had his back the entire time. They were the people in his corner. They cheered him loudly at games… well, once they got there and got seated. They embraced him in the community. They shared in the four trips to the Finals in four years and two NBA titles. They celebrated with him.
Then he bolted them, too.
So yes, Heat fans are feeling betrayed — and LeBron’s going to hear a little of that on Christmas Day when his Cleveland Cavaliers come to downtown Miami for a game broadcast on ABC (5 ET).
Dwyane Wade may not want it but there will be boos — but they will be mixed with cheers. Unlike his return to Cleveland there will not be that kind of raw negative emotion overwhelming the arena. Part of it is a different culture in Miami, a more laid back lifestyle, one where the sun, the beach, the beautiful people and spicy food provide another identity for the city so theirs is not so wrapped up in the fate of sports teams. Plus, Heat fans do feel appreciative for the years they had from LeBron. For the banners hanging in AmericanAirlines Arena (near the retired Dan Marino jersey… seriously).
But LeBron is going to remind them on Christmas just what they are missing.
Miami has struggled this season to a 13-16 record (still good enough for the seven seed in the East). The Heat have dropped three of their last four and that includes an ugly loss to the Sixers Tuesday where they gave up a 23-point lead. Through it all the Heat have battled injuries including losing Josh McRoberts for the season, and with that their space-and-pace offense has been pedestrian (103 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the NBA).
But the big problem in Miami has been the defense, ranked 25th in the league surrendering 106.3 points per 100 possessions. Eric Spoelstra still has them playing an aggressive, pressuring style on that end and they are third best in the league in forcing turnovers (16.8 percent of opponent possessions end that way) but they lack the athletes and discipline to cover for when that goes wrong now, and teams are getting good looks. The Heat are 28th in the league in opponent eFG% at 52.6 percent.
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Once again the Heat will be without Chris Bosh, who is suffering from a calf strain and had hoped to be back by this game but Heat coach Eric Spoelstra ruled him out on Wednesday at practice.
That’s a blow. Bosh is averaging 21.6 points a game and the Heat offense improves 3.4 points per 100 when he is on the court. They really needed him because Miami will be without Anderson Varejao, who suffered a torn Achilles and is done for the season. Tristan Thompson will start but Miami’s defense is weak, particularly in the paint. Miami just doesn’t have the size to exploit it.
However, the bigger problem for the Heat in this game comes back to defense. They are going to learn what so many of their opponents learned the four previous seasons — you just can’t contain LeBron.
The Heat have a solid wing defender in Luol Deng but he will be overmatched against LeBron. More and more in recent games David Blatt has put the ball in LeBron’s hands as a defacto point guard and the Cavaliers offense has thrived because of it — despite the rough start the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season, scoring 108.5 points per 100 possessions. LeBron makes good decisions and the Heat are scoring 113.3 points per 100 when their big three are on the court together.
That improved supporting cast is part of the reason LeBron returned to Miami — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are each matchup nightmares. Love is getting more touches in the post (expect to see that early in the game in particular) but is still dangerous from three. The at the point some combination of Norris Cole/Shabazz Napier/Mario Chalmers has to stay with Irving, a gifted penetrator who also can shoot from distance.
There was a Miami Heat team we saw the opening weeks of the season that looked like it could be a threat to a team like Cleveland, but that version of the Heat has been AWOL for a while now. Maybe the return of Bosh to the lineup and the emotion of the moment can reawaken that squad and make this game interesting. I expect it can for the first half or so.
But at some point Cleveland is going to shift into a gear Miami just doesn’t have.
That should look familiar to Heat fans.
And remind them what they are missing this season.