LeBron James’ hairline is very different, as is his level of muscularity, but he is still the same incredible player who electrified Quicken Loans Arena for seven years.
That’s why it’s so bittersweet every time “The Chosen One” returns to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat.
James put on another fantastic show Wednesday, collecting 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in rallying Miami for a 98-95 victory over the Cavaliers — and its 24th consecutive victory.
There was no anger about “The Decision” on this night. Only envy for the Heat fans who are able to watch James play 50-plus times a season.
“I know how passionate these fans are about their Cavs, Browns and Indians, so I knew they would be loud again tonight,” said James, who had 19 points, 10 boards and seven assists in 24 second-half minutes. “They always come out and support their teams, and I understand that.”
“LeBreezy” was nothing short of breathtaking after intermission — completely taking over the game — as the Heat erased a 27-point deficit in front of a sellout crowd that booed him every time he touched the ball.
James’ performance was nearly identical to the myriad times he put the Cavaliers on his back inside The Q. So was his disposition, as he taunted specific fans who were rooting for the opposition.
“LeBron always sets the tone for us and never changes his approach,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There was nothing different about his body language today, but that’s his nature.
“It took him a while to be comfortable being a leader on our team, but now that he’s gotten more comfortable, he is doing it in every way.”
When James signed with Miami in July 2010, he happily deferred all leadership responsibilities to the man who lured him to South Beach: Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade.
Wade, however, is far more suited to play a secondary superstar role, which was evident when Miami lost to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. It also was the case when Wade fell in line behind Shaquille O’Neal during the Heat’s 2006 championship season.
James, meanwhile, looked unhappy throughout his first season in Miami. He was widely depicted as the poster boy for all greedy athletes, which peaked in his first game back in Cleveland on Dec. 2, 2010.
Pure venom dripped from the stands that evening, creating a scene that no one in attendance will ever forget.
“That game in 2010 was probably the craziest experience I’ve had in basketball,” said Heat center Joel Anthony, a sixth-year pro. “I’ll always remember the emotion and the energy in the crowd about LeBron.
“But this is a great place to play every night. The atmosphere is good and the fans really are into the game. You can see why guys like to play here because of that.”
Yes, it is, which is why the Cavaliers are considered one of three teams with a legitimate chance to lure “King James” from Miami when he can opt out of his contract following the 2013-2014 season.
It’s far from a given the Akron native will leave the Heat, but if he does, Cleveland, New York and the Los Angeles Lakers are in prime position to woo him.
Remarkably, James will only be 29 years old during his next free-agency summer, meaning he will be in his prime — and inching closer to breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record — when he hits the open market.
“Every year in the league, he has evolved and broken his own barriers,” Spoelstra said. “He understands his legacy in this league because he appreciates its history.”
While one can question James’ maturity at times, his knowledge of NBA history is beyond reproach. He can intelligently discuss Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson one minute, then ably break down the best attributes of Kevin Durant the next.
Because of that, “LeBreezy” has to recognize that his once-sterling reputation will never be restored unless he returns to the Cavaliers at some point.
So does James’ agent, Rich Paul, who was seated courtside between the scorer’s table and the Heat bench.
Paul’s office is located in downtown Cleveland, where he has separated himself from the rest of James’ childhood friends and earned a great deal of respect from NBA executives. Those attributes can only be viewed as positives, as should his good relationship with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Chris Grant.
Though James declined to discuss a possible return to the wine and gold, it was front and center on everyone’s mind before, during and after the thrilling game.
“I just want to make my mark in this game while I’m here (in the league),” James said calmly. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.