The four-time MVP cut a jolly figure on Christmas, saluting Miami fans in his first return to South Beach since he relocated back to Cleveland last summer. James embraced Dwyane Wade, joked with the Heat bench and dapped arena employees, doing his best to grin with old chums while bearing another loss that exposed the many flaws of his new squad. Indeed, he saved the curt exchanges and barking for his current teammates, particularly Kevin Love and Dion Waiters, as the Cavaliers gave up a critical closing run to suffer a fairly lifeless 101-91 defeat.
It was Wade who punched first, scoring 12 first-quarter points, and last, driving past Kyrie Irving for a last-minute layup as James and Love watched flat-footed from the weakside. Miami's All-Star guard finished with a game-high 31 points, five rebounds and five assists to outduel James, who posted 30 points, eight assists and four rebounds despite leaving the game briefly in the second half with tightness in his left leg. The two stars had their moments, but this game -- like the NBA's Christmas slate as a whole -- was defined more by who wasn't there. On a day in which Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Bosh all didn't suit up, Cleveland's roster holes were laid bare by a Miami team that shares some of the same problems.
In their first game without starting center Anderson Varejao, who was lost this week to a torn Achilles, Cleveland was thoroughly outplayed inside by a Miami team that has played small for years and was without both Bosh and Josh McRoberts. The Heat were +6 in rebounds, +16 in points in the paint, +14 in second-chance points and they shot 21-for-31 in the basket area. With no true centers left among his rotation players, Cavaliers coach David Blatt opted to start Love in the middle, a decision that resulted in just five rebounds in 39 minutes, plus plenty of unrest from James.
The loss of Varejao also showed ripple effects for a Cavaliers roster that was already just getting by with its bench. Cleveland's "Big Three" of James, Love and Irving accounted for 48 of the Cavaliers' 72 shot attempts, and non-Big 3 members combined to shoot just 8-for-24 from the field. Not known as a deep team with James in the fold last year, the depleted Heat still enjoyed a 23-14 bench scoring advantage over the Cavaliers. There's no clearer sign of a weakness than Danny Granger exploiting you. And, yes, this was the same the Heat team that lost to the four-win Sixers team at home on Tuesday.
Varejao was arguably the biggest X-factor in the NBA this season, and his injury is crippling in the short term. Entering Christmas, either Varejao or Tristan Thompson were included in Cleveland's 29 (!) most-used five-man lineups. However Blatt was juggling his stars and perimeter role players, he could at least count on one of those two bigs -- even though Thompson is undersized as a five -- to give him minutes inside. Now, he's forced to choose whether to promote Thompson to the starting lineup, thereby turning all of the second-unit scoring duties to Dion Waiters, or to scrape by with Love as an overmatched center. There isn't really a "right answer" to such a fatal flaw.
There's absolutely no sense in making a single late-December loss into a referendum on James' free-agency choice, but his return to Miami made for a difficult present-to-past, side-by-side comparison. The 17-11 Cavaliers are meaningfully worse, record-wise, than any of James' four Heat teams. Through 28 games, James' squads in Miami never had worse than a 20-8 record, not even in his first season, when the Heat's new-look juggernaut was still finding its way. In fact, this is the worst start to a season for James since his age-23 season in 2007-08, a campaign that ended in an Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Celtics. Compared to the Heat's glory years, these Cavaliers are less electric, less overwhelming, and less committed, and they are inferior defensively and from a discipline standpoint.
"We’re not that good right now," James admitted afterwards, according to ESPN.com. "We’ve won some really good games, we’ve lost some games, but we’re not that good right now."
The schedule gets softer over the new few weeks, allowing Blatt and company some time to come up with a new formula in an attempt to recapture the positive momentum generated during an eight-game winning streak a few weeks back. Whether these parts are capable of getting to a championship-contention level, without a major addition, remains an open question.
James' first trip back to Miami will be remembered in much the same way as his return to Cleveland earlier this season. Like that season-opening loss to the lowly Knicks, the Cavaliers laid an egg on a big stage and James wasn't able to come to the rescue. At least he looked less miserable and surprised this time.