MIAMI | The white message board in the Miami Heat locker room warned players about what awaits in Cleveland.
“Snow. 20’s,” it said.
The weather will be cold, the reception will be colder — and LeBron James says he’s up to the challenge.
Next up: James‘ homecoming-of-sorts in Cleveland, the city he scorned in free agency, on Thursday night.
“It’s going to be emotional for myself, going back to Cleveland to the fans that I still love to this day,” James said. “Lot of great memories, but I’ve got to try to put that in the back of my mind, understand that we’re coming in to get a win, and play hard and try to get a ‘W.’”
And to think Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was worried that the looming distractions of the ultra-hyped game in Cleveland would take away from Miami’s focus on Wednesday.
Not a problem.
Detroit was taken care of easily. And following “The Decision” this summer in which James picked Miami on national television, now comes “The Return,” not just by him, but for former Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as well.
“Tomorrow will be a very competitive, passionate game,” Spoelstra said. “And we want to take care of two of our own.”
Play like this in Cleveland, and Miami might be fine.
It was Miami’s second-stingiest defensive showing of the season, only bettered by holding Orlando to 70 points on Oct. 29. The Pistons shot just 36 percent, and no Detroit starter reached double figures. Miami won its second straight after a clearing-the-air team meeting in Dallas on Saturday night.
It was one of Miami’s best starts of the season. The Heat made 11 of their first 14 shots, James starting 5 for 6 on his own, and never trailed.
Mario Chalmers — now fully recovered from an offseason high ankle sprain that lingered for months — had four assists in the first 4½ minutes of the second quarter, three of them in a 1-minute span, and nodded or pointed knowingly to the scorer who was set up by his pass every time.
But the theme throughout the evening for Miami was clearly defense.
Detroit scored only nine points — matching a season low — in the third quarter, shooting 4 of 22. Wade only played 3½ minutes in the third and nearly outscored the Pistons himself, getting seven points in that short stint.
The Pistons‘ previous season low for scoring was 78; they didn’t come close to that against a Miami team that came in allowing 94.4 points per game.
Detroit got 31 points from its starters, the eighth-lowest total by a Piston starting five in the last 20 seasons. The last time Detroit’s first-stringers scored fewer than 31 in a game was against Cleveland on April 16, 2008, when they combined for only 13 — in a game where they only played one quarter.
They were out there far longer Wednesday.
Didn’t matter. Miami got to rest its starters for much of the fourth quarter, a slight respite before the challenge of Cleveland.
“We will be tested tomorrow,” Spoelstra said. “Physically, emotionally, all the above.”
The Heat led 54-42 at the break, and that was after just a one-point half from Wade, who played only 9 minutes before intermission because of foul trouble.
So maybe it was a coincidence that, on the first play of the second quarter — McGrady’s first appearance of the night — James drove right at him, drawing a foul call only 4 seconds into the period. And when Wade had the chance with 9 minutes left in the half, he went full steam ahead at McGrady as well, getting called for the offensive foul.
Now, on to Cleveland — and a scene perhaps unlike any other in James‘ career.
NOTES: The nine points by Detroit in the third was Miami’s best defensive quarter of the season. The Heat gave up 10 points in the third quarter against Orlando on Oct. 29. … Wade had a dunk with 7:58 left in the fourth quarter, the ball going through the net, off his knee — and rocketed toward Pistons coach John Kuester, who caught it with ease. … The Pistons have lost six of their last seven against Miami. … James Jones had seven rebounds, his best total in a Heat uniform.
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