CLEVELAND — Four years, three months and 21 days had finally elapsed, so now the countdown could be measured in minutes, and not many at that. The rather spacious party room on the other end of the tunnel was all ready for him, with every seat taken, every supposed sin forgiven and just about every aspect of the celebration carefully scripted. And now, after huddling and addressing his team, LeBron James bounced in place, before playfully popping Nick Gilbert, the owner’s son, in the chest and laughing his way out into the love.
Following the morning shootaround, James had called this “probably one of the biggest sporting events that’s up there ever,” and while that may have sounded haughty and hyperbolic in 49 other states, it seemed somewhat understated to anyone anywhere near Prospect Avenue or Huron Road or East 4th Street at any time on Thursday. James may be an economic boon for this region, but, on this morning, afternoon and early evening, the only work getting done was by drink-pouring professionals.
Fans waved giveaway red glow sticks, cheered James’ Cleveland-centric Nike commercial and his “no place like home” close to the introductions on the new gargantuan video screen, sang the national anthem along with Usher, scattered confetti along with James’ chalk toss and even lustily and tepidly booed Justin Bieber and Geraldo Rivera, respectively.
Everything went off without a hitch.
Well, until tipoff.
Then stuff got strange.
The now-permanent guest of honor started committing uncharacteristic gaffes.
The undermanned Knicks were unexpectedly competitive.
The hyped Cavaliers, after looking so connected during the preseason, underwhelmed on both ends on their way to a 95-90 opening-night defeat.
“It’s one game, we got to learn from this,” said James, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists, while making 5-of-15 shots. “It’s great to have a game like this, especially early on. It’s good for us to learn from the experience, and get better.”
He can certainly speak from experience, since he didn’t win his first game with Miami, either, after the construction of the Miami Heat‘s Big Three.
“We began the game in the fashion that we wanted to play, and I think we spiked,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, after his official NBA debut. “We’ve been thinking and excited about the game for a long time, certainly all day today it’s been building and building. We used that emotion in a positive way in the beginning and then I thought we spiked and we kind of dropped off the map.”
Blatt said James’ effort was sufficient.
His efficiency, however, was off from the start.
He was short on his first shot, from 19 feet. He converted his second, finishing a fast break that started with one of Kevin Love’s trademark outlet passes and ended with Carmelo Anthony hanging all over him. He pointed to his biceps and, even after flubbing the free throw, seemed poised to lift his team past the woeful Knicks. But then, a fallaway wouldn’t fall. Neither would a pull-up corner three. Or a straightaway three. Or a turnaround bank shot, each attempt now increasing in difficulty, no flow, no rhythm, often no angle. It wasn’t just when Anthony was guarding him, either; rookie Travis Wear, veteran of all of six NBA minutes coming in, preseason long shot for the Knicks’ 15th spot, took some turns on him, too, including one that resulted in James dribbling along the baseline before air-balling an impossible turnaround jumper from the other side.
“I got some good looks, I got some great looks,” James said. “I missed a layup, I missed two open threes. The turnovers kind of got me off rhythm more than anything.”
Yes, those. He had four at halftime, and four more after.
“I hate turning the ball over,” James said. “It’s a pet peeve of mine and eight is definitely something that’s not OK.”
Some donut shops don’t offer as many varieties. He fumbled the ball in transition. He tried a no-look pass that backfired. He got called for a moving screen.
“I’m throwing passes where I was hoping that some of my teammates were, and they were not there, and that will come with each game, each practice,” James said. “It’s a team that’s learning each other. The one in the corner, where Kyrie [Irving], I thought he was gonna stay in the corner, he cut backdoor. There was another one late, when I thought Kevin [Love] was gonna kind of roll, he popped.”
There were a couple of slick collaborations, once when Irving’s steal led to a James layup, another when Irving’s penetration and Love’s baseline sprint precipitated a sweet finish for the latter. But, generally, the precision of the preseason was missing, as James played with six teammates for the first time in a regular-season game, with Anderson Varejao and Mike Miller (who only teamed with him for 1:24) the only exceptions.
There was zigging when there should have been zagging.
And there was standing. Much too much standing.
“We got stagnant without question,” said Blatt, known for his creative offensive sets in Europe, sets that Love said the Cavaliers never really got into Thursday. “We’re really good when we’re moving the ball. When we play without motion and without ball energy, then that’s what it looks like. That is exactly what happened.”
That, as it just so happens, is what often happened to the Heat, especially that first season.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of getting him things in motion, and not ask him to play from static positions,” Blatt said. “And help him out when he needs it. Some nights you need that. Even a guy like him.”
That, too, is something the Heat learned over time and became better at executing after the 9-8 start in 2010-11, and especially after the 2011 NBA Finals loss to Dallas. But go back even further, for the most apt comparison. Go back to that first game, that 88-80 Heat loss in Boston.
James scored more in that game, with 31 points.
But the turnovers?
He had eight that night, too.
And, at times, the Heat looked even more disconnected than the Cavaliers did Thursday, albeit against a far superior opponent, in a much more hostile building.
James didn’t have rabid Bostonians to deal with Thursday, but he did have some have some distractions.
“It was very difficult,” James said of the recent hoopla. “Not only just the game, but having a newborn as well in the house. A lot has happened in the last week, to lead up to this point. You know, it was fun while it lasted.”
The fun with Zhuri James, the third of his children and first daughter, will last for a while. But the fun of this evening had pretty much ended by the final minute of the fourth quarter, when his friend and rival Anthony (25 points) made a challenging fallaway over him. Not long after, before the final buzzer, some of the crowd starting filtering out into the night, knowing that from a basketball perspective, there will be better ones.
“I mean, it was a huge night,” James said. “It was exciting for the fans, exciting for the city. But now we can just play regular basketball, man.”
That starts Friday against another projected East power in Chicago, a team that has more continuity, a deeper bench and a much more established defensive disposition.
Where his team will attempt to avoid 0-2, and all the alarms that will sound.
The alarms James, from his Heat experience, knows all too well, when a squad isn’t coming together as the experts expect.
“I just tried to stay focused, and maintain, and focus as much as I could,” James said. “And obviously it was a special night, not just for myself but for everybody. It was great, but now I’m glad it’s over.”
He’s created a connection with this city again, when—after the broken trust and vile insults—few thought he ever could. It’s clear that the work has just started, however, when it comes to creating a championship connection with his teammates.