Posted Dec 3 2010 1:07AM - Updated Dec 3 2010 6:14AM
CLEVELAND -- Credit must go where credit is due, and Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena, that credit belonged to fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the way they comported themselves. Faced with a situation rife with anger, disgust and hurt feelings, they kept their displeasure mostly at a civil level, showed laudable restraint and largely fended off any temptation to behave badly.
They booed the Cavaliers only briefly and in moderation.
Oh, they booed LeBron James too. Booed him pretty vociferously, in fact, early in the game. In volume and snarl factor, it rated maybe a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is Philadelphia sports fans letting 'er rip on Santa Claus. But that got harder to maintain as the Cavaliers rolled over in a toothless 118-90 defeat and, in an odd role reversal, took their own fans out of what should have been a much more intense experience.
Bottom line, the Cavs did the only thing Thursday that could have been worse than losing: they made James look right in leaving.
They made him look right, if not for the manner in which he announced his departure (never, ever for that), at least right to vest his championship ambitions in the Heat. A few Cavs still might want to whine that James didn't have their backs this summer, but when it came time for those left behind to play with the passion and irritation of those who pay their way in, the players didn't have the fans' backs.
On a night when the jilted and the scorned of Cleveland were primed to give James the ol' what-for over his decision to run off with the Miami Heat, they were undercut by a home team that turned in a what-the-bleep performance. The Cavaliers, who had seemed publicly to be growing a cute steely reserve in the 48 hours leading up to their old superstar's first visit back, instead went deer-in-the-headlights.
After which they went complete Bambi.
Whipped cream offers more push-back than the Cavaliers did as the game dragged on. No hard fouls on James. No one getting in his grill when he repeatedly yakked and gestured at the Cleveland bench down in that corner of the court. No one getting in their grill, either, for not getting in his grill.
You think of Byron Scott the player, as a proud and competitive shooting guard with the "Showtime" Lakers, and you know that -- had none of his teammates acted to shut up a taunting foe -- Scott himself would have stepped up, either in the flow of the game or over there on the side. Then you listened to Scott the Cleveland head coach late last night, and heard only coddling for what sure looked like cowering.
"You know what, I didn't really see anything," Scott said. "I turned one time [to see] when he was down there talking. But I'm not really worried about that. I'm more worried about us. That stuff there, that's what he does most games. He talks to most guys on the bench."
If ever a situation cried out for a Cavs reserve to spring up and take a technical for the team -- while acting as a surrogate for the 20,562 in the place who wanted James to stay uncomfortable in The Q for more than a quarter and a half -- that was it.
But nope. This was as unseemly as Latrell Sprewell going back into Madison Square Garden with Minnesota in 2003-04 and blistering Knicks chairman James Dolan, only without the crotch grabs and 12-letter curses.
"For me it was [good-natured]," James said. "That's a question you've got to ask those guys."
Said Scott: "Again, we've got a young team. So it doesn't hurt me. This is a learning process for our guys. A lot of guys in that locker room hadn't been on a stage this big."
They won't be again anytime soon, now that James and the Heat have come, seen and conquered. As sympathetic as the basketball world and even casual sports fans have been to Cleveland getting sucker-punched in July by their guy's narcissistic bye-bye -- an emotion that had most who tuned in to this clash rooting for the underdog homies -- you'd be hard pressed to find anyone, on the basis of the Cavs' performance, who would say he made a mistake in leaving.
Naturally, they'd be a different team with a star, a leader, a hub. Yet this wasn't a game that had to swing on shooting percentages or defensive rebounds. This was a game that could have been won -- or at least kept close -- on adrenaline and guts.
"I'm not discouraged," Scott said. "I'm not embarrassed. I'm disappointed."
There was, as the clock ground down and Miami's 59-40 halftime bloated to as much as 38 points, some ugliness in the stands. A skirmish near the tunnel opposite the Cavs' bench -- an unruly fan stupidly mixing it up with a police officer -- came during a break in the action and led to a swift arrest. There were some flare-ups in the upper level. And then a thrown battery landed near the Heat bench and someone (or several someones) were ejected from that area, too. (Cavs owner Dan Gilbert seemed to eject himself from his baseline seat at the other end in the first half, when it was clear how the night was headed.)
"We saw the battery that was thrown on the ground," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I heard a lot of noise, but to be honest I didn't know what else was going on."
Fact is, all that was on the Cavaliers' heads, too. Had they at least kept the game close, or interesting, boredom and despair might not have mixed so combustibly with the beverages served.
Before the second half, James and Cavs guard Daniel Gibson buddied up like old times. Big man Anderson Varejao playfully plucked the headband off James' head when he loitered too close to the Cleveland bench in the third quarter, which rattled the Heat forward so much that he immediately scored four points. Only Mo Williams seemed determined not to join in any James jocularity when their pride, and recent past, was being so tested.
"When you give 100 percent every night, you don't feel embarrassed at all," Varejao said later. "You know you did your best and you know you tried everything."
Except, maybe, knock somebody down.
James spent the fourth quarter on the bench in sweats, and Spoelstra said he had faith in his team's security staff that he wasn't creating a sitting target for cranky fans. But he could have sent James to the locker room to be safe; shoot, he could have sent him to the team's plane with a quarter to spare and not suffered for it.
Late in the blowout, a plucky Cavs fan held up a sign that read: "We are down by 25 and we still have more fans here." Her point was that Miami often plays in front of empty seats at home, even now, and it looked hastily scribbled. Still, you wondered if she had written it up that way at home. In the afternoon.
The alternative to being disappointed by the Cavaliers' lack of tenacity, after all, is to dismiss them altogether. The exit strategy from this much ballyhooed "payback" game was going to be tricky from the start, given the difference in the teams' talent levels. But the Cavaliers made Miami look way better than its 12-8 record, while playing way worse than their own 7-11 mark.
At the end of the night, the three Miami stars and scurrying members of the Heat's traveling party walked down the hall toward the team bus. James wore a black varsity jacket with the confident words across the back, "Time To Roll." That's exactly what he and his new team did, in a building that once again -- so fast -- he owns.
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