Reporting from Cleveland — Suddenly, the boos were gone, the chants forgotten. LeBron James took the ball hard to the basket on a fastbreak — how many times had that move started fireworks for these fans? — and threw it down. And was fouled.
Everyone was braced for Cleveland spilling hate at James and on the Miami Heat on Thursday night. And they tried in the Heat's 118-90 romp over the Cavaliers. Signs. Boos. Chants. A group of eight fans wearing T-shirts that spelled, "B-e-t-r-a-y-e-d."
But now, as James made the free throw in what would be his 24-point third quarter, another, stranger noise came from these fans. One, if not of tribute, then of defeat.
How about that moment of silence Cleveland gave LeBron?
It sat there in the dead arena air, not moving, as the Heat celebrated its way to an easy victory.
As the night moved on, as Miami went on an early 16-0 run, as the score tilted as much as 38 points in favor of the Heat, as the chants and boos faded to nothing by the end, the story line changed from how excited Cleveland fans were to hate their lost hero to how well the Heat answered on this night.
Cleveland couldn't score, couldn't rebound and certainly couldn't defend James (38 points through three quarters) or Dwyane Wade (22 points through three quarters).
Isn't this how the Heat was supposed to look? Wasn't this the kind of show expected from it?
The Heat did it Thursday. The Heat ran. The Heat shot. The Heat defended. The Heat pushed a lightweight Cleveland team away, like a leaf in the breeze.
"We played the most complete game all year, I think," James said after the game
Poor Cleveland. The fans couldn't even enjoy their hate of LeBron. It was the sports version of opening Al Capone's vault.
For all the buildup, there was nothing there. James, by himself, outscored Cleveland's starting lineup (28 points)
Oh, there was all the expected stuff from fans. Up in Section 133, they had a table for fans to make their own signs. And they did. "Queen James." "Loyalty over Royalty." "Play Like it's Game 5." A team official confiscated a sign that involved anatomical parts.
When Charles Barkley walked oncourt for the TNT pregame show, fans gave him a standing ovation for his anti-LeBron comments. The TV scoreboard showed a sign of Barkley saying, "Punk Move, 'Bron."
It was somewhat embarrassing how much Cleveland's organization invested in this game. They even brought out a group of all-time Clevelanders in Cavaliers jerseys just before tipoff. Actor Drew Carey. Cavaliers great Bingo Smith. Browns great Bernie Kosar.
LeBron did his pregame act with the plume of talcum powder. And was booed. He made his first shot. And was booed. He missed his next shot. And was cheered.
But he controlled the game while in it and, with 3:35 left in the first quarter, he took his first free throws. The fans stood for this. They booed. They chanted more about anatomy. He made both shots.
His first-quarter statistics: 10 points, five assists, four rebounds.
This, then, was the interesting part for Heat fans. Beyond the Cleveland fans, the fascination was how the Heat players would respond. James and Wade matched the moment, attacking, battling, fighting.
This was one of the questions for this Heat team that Coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to see.
"This is a challenge to define ourselves," he said.
Would it fight? Yep, it would. And James would have fun. He walked before the Cleveland bench at timeouts and talked. Mostly, he had fun by winning easily.
"I know this court, I know this court," he said. "I've made a lot of shots on this court."
The Cleveland fans? They slumped out into the winter air, their big night not much of one at all.
James should have left this city in a better manner. He should have left in a respectful way. But on his return he did something that the past six months have overlooked. He reminded Cleveland fans of the talent they got to watch.