MIAMI: He had the ball on the baseline with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Dunleavy defending him Sunday night. When Dunleavy leaned ever so slightly to his right, ?LeBron James took one dribble and stormed toward the basket.
He soared under the rim and emerged on the other side, ripping down a ferocious dunk that left the sold-out crowd in AmericanAirlines Arena roaring in approval. James stood there for a moment in a hulking pose, admiring his work and enjoying a moment that looked exactly like so many he had for seven years at Quicken Loans Arena.
As the Cavaliers prepare to face James and the Miami Heat tonight for the first time this season, James is still adjusting to his new life. Last season was the complicated transitional phase, but he is flourishing this season.
The Heat are 6-1 without Dwyane Wade, in large part because of James. Wade has missed the past four games with an ankle injury and is questionable for tonight’s game. The Heat scored impressive victories over the Spurs, Lakers and Sixers last week, until tired legs gave out in a sloppy loss Sunday against the Bucks.
James is averaging 29.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists — numbers in line with his career averages of 27.7, 7.1 and 7.0. He entered the season promising to shed the villain role that he encountered last season. He was going to smile more and enjoy the game again.
“He’s very committed, he’s very focused and he was last year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “If he happens to do that with a smile on his face this year, I don’t have a problem with that. He’s been very committed as a leader of our team.”
Despite the highlight dunk, James didn’t play his best game Sunday night, particularly in the final minutes, when he missed a jumper, blew an easy layup and was part of the Heat lineup that allowed tiny Brandon Jennings to get a key offensive rebound and basket when the Heat were trying to rally.
But James was at ease in the locker room afterward, joking about an errant blow to the face he received from the Bucks’ Andrew Bogut.
Depending on who is speaking, James, at times, appears more relaxed and comfortable than he was last year and sometimes he’s not.
“Obviously, it was a whirlwind of a season last year,” Heat center Joel Anthony said. “He’s a lot more comfortable in his position here in Miami. That’s to be expected after getting over that first year.”
The Heat recently created gimmick posters with a 1970s theme, one of which features James in an afro wig and sunglasses and holding a disco ball, reminiscent to all those skits and singing performances he would give on the Jumbotron during Cavs games.
Those days are long over, as are the dance performances James and his teammates performed during Cavs blowouts. He might wiggle to the beat a little bit on the bench now during Heat games, but that’s as far as the dancing goes.
“That’s just Miami Heat style,” guard Mario Chalmers said. “Things change when you come to a different team and you have to abide by their rules. That’s just the rules here.”
Added Anthony: “He was still cracking jokes last year. It’s not as if he was moping around. He’s still the same guy. When it’s serious and time to get down to work, that’s who he was. When it was time in the locker room for guys to stay pretty loose, he’s right there with everyone else. In terms of his personality, a lot of it has still been the same.”
The Cavs continue to slowly rebuild with the hope of one day returning to the level they had achieved just two years ago — they are continuing to remake their identity without James. In reality, James is still remaking his identity without them, too.
Daniel Gibson was at practice Monday and will be available for tonight’s game. He did not play in Saturday’s loss at the Atlanta Hawks because of a death in his extended family.
Gibson was in the center of the storm last season when James returned to Cleveland for the first time, but dismissed any importance in facing him this season. Much of the angst has dissipated because the Cavs are more concerned with fixing the problems that led to consecutive losses by a combined 66 points over the weekend.
The key now is to prevent this from spiraling into something similar to the miserable 26-game losing streak the team endured last season.
“It’s definitely a big game for us because of what’s happened the last two games,” Gibson said. “We aren’t worried about what happened last year. We definitely feel this team is a better team. Our focus is genuinely getting it together and giving ourselves a chance to win.”
Tristan Thompson received treatment on his sprained left ankle and did not practice Monday, but made the trip with his teammates. He will be a game-time decision tonight. … Christian Eyenga was recalled from the Cavs’ Development League team in Canton. … After ripping Kyrie Irving’s defense over the weekend, coach Byron Scott said Irving played his best defense yet during Monday’s practice. … After reviewing the film, Scott said the Cavs made more than 30 mental errors on defense in the loss to the Hawks.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.