LOS ANGELES -- LeBron James returned to Cleveland on Dec. 2, 2010, and the Heat were 11-8. Practices were stilted. Meetings were tense. Fourth-quarters were awkward. It's hard to imagine now, as the Heat puree the rest of the NBA, but they didn't like each other very much. When James landed in Cleveland, he fully expected the outpouring of vitriol he would receive from the 20,000 people at Quicken Loans Arena, the lusty boos and obscene chants, the Quitness signs and LeBum T-shirts. What he couldn't expect was the outpouring of support he would receive from the 14 people in his locker room.
The Heat blasted the Cavaliers that night, 118-90, galvanized behind their vilified teammate. They didn't know James well back then, but they cared about him enough to treat his homecoming as their own, and ensure it didn't turn into a roast. James scored 38 points, Dwyane Wade added 22, Chris Bosh 15, and three transcendent talents merged into one. "This is the first time I've seen this connection," head coach Erik Spoelstra said at the time. The Heat won 19 of their next 20 games.
There is no comparing the 2010 Heat to the 2012 Lakers, a super team to a super tease, except Dwight Howard is heading back to Orlando and he, too, could use a few friends sprinkled among 20,000 enemies. Tuesday night will be difficult for Howard, who admittedly craves public approval, and will be received with nothing but scorn. The local newspaper put together a video set to the song "Forget You." A local radio station made signs that read: "We'll Never Forget You Daryl." Perhaps the jeers will be a little louder because Howard called the Magic "a team full of people nobody wanted," and perhaps the looks from the opposing bench will be dirtier. But the reaction was going to be brutal regardless. Howard can survive the boos and the chants, the signs and the tees, as long as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash stand behind him.
Bryant is accustomed to angry crowds, but he has spent his entire career with the Lakers, so he has no idea what it's like to face a former team. Nash left Phoenix last summer, but the fans apparently didn't hold it against him, seeing as how they practically blew him air-kisses from the seats six weeks ago. Bryant and Nash have tried all sorts of motivational tactics on Howard this season. They have flattered him, cajoled him and tweaked him. They have met him in private and critiqued him in public. But if they really want to engage Howard, they can be there for him Tuesday, the way Wade and Bosh were for James two years ago.
The Lakers already faced Orlando once this season, in early December at Staples Center, and it was a mortifying loss to the NBA's second-worst team. Howard finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, but he went 9-of-21 at the free-throw line and 7-of-14 in the fourth quarter, with the Magic employing the same hack-happy strategy that other teams once used against them. The Lakers could have rallied behind Howard, in a game that clearly meant more to him than them, but instead they gave up 40 points in the fourth quarter and left him humiliated. "It wasn't emotional," Howard muttered afterward, his tone implying otherwise.
Much has changed for the Lakers since the All-Star break, when Howard holed up in a Houston hotel room, and pondered how he could salvage a shipwrecked season. He committed to everything Bryant and Nash had asked of him: setting screens, contesting shots, playing through a rash of injuries and a shortage of touches. Howard says he is in better shape, which may have led to a better frame of mind, because he is taking more pleasure in screens that lead to baskets and blocks that lead to run-outs. Since the break, Howard has pulled down 12 or more rebounds in 10 straight games for only the second time in his career, and not coincidentally, the Lakers have gone 8-2. It's looking like they will avoid the title of Most Talented Team Ever To Miss The Playoffs.
The Lakers can't expect Bryant and Howard to take any helicopter rides together, or spot each other during 4 a.m. workouts, but, in recent weeks, they have shown an ability to at least co-exist for a while. After Howard posted 16 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks in a dismembering of the Bulls on Sunday, Bryant told reporters he would talk to his gregarious center when the team landed in Orlando and "try to put a little of that a--hole in him for the game." He and Nash are learning, finally, how to coax the most out of a happy giant. "It may be tough for him," Bryant said. "He's a very, very nice kid. He wants to say the right things and please as many people as he can. You can't please everybody. ... Just go out there and bust they a--."
Dec. 2, 2010, was a landmark day for LeBron James. Of course, he had already left Cleveland, but it seemed he was masquerading in Miami. At some point on that trip, James and the Heat invested in each other, beyond the terms of a max contract. The Lakers believed they could forge a similar bond with Howard, which is why they acquired him last summer, even though he will be a free agent July 1. They have missed some opportunities to stand behind him during periods of struggle, to show him that they are his team and his crew and that they will support him even when 20,000 do not.
They get another opportunity Tuesday.