Miami Heat

LeBron James’ return to Miami to face Heat will make for some great holiday drama

They still paper the walls inside AmericanAirlines Arena with images of LeBron James.

When he returns to Miami on Thursday for the first time since leaving for Cleveland, James will find, aesthetically, an arena that hasn’t changed much without him.

When James left Cleveland for Miami, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had every shred of James’ memory scrubbed from Quicken Loans Arena. That didn’t happen on Biscayne Boulevard, though, when James decided to return home.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to deny what happened the last four years,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “If you look around the arena there is still a celebration of what we were able to accomplish in those four years. I have not taken down pictures in my own office.”

Reminders of James’ time in Miami can be found throughout the arena’s bowl, but also deep inside the inner sanctum where only players, coaches and team personnel are allowed. In the corridor the franchise calls the “Hall of Champions,” wallpaper of James’ greatest moments are everywhere. The Heat’s players walk past those pictures almost every day.

On Christmas Day, the Heat will walk past those pictures of James’ Heat years once more, but waiting outside the Hall of Champions will be James in a Cavaliers jersey. Christmas is the NBA’s marquee day for regular-season games, and the Heat in recent years has been featured on Dec.25 more often than not. These games always mean more to teams, but James’ first game back in Miami makes for great holiday drama.

That sounds like fun and everything, but some of the players say they’re not buying it.

“It isn’t about LeBron, and it isn’t about beating Cleveland because he left to go to Cleveland,” Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem said. “It’s about the Miami Heat against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and we want to win that game whether it was last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers that won 25 games or whatever, or this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers who everyone thinks is going to win it all.

“We got a game on Christmas, and we go out and play the game.”

Lately, the games have been difficult.

The Heat (13-16) lost to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday after leading by 23 points in the third quarter. The collapse was stunning, but no more revealing than the Heat’s slow decay at home since the first week of the season. Miami is 5-10 at home. Last season, the team finished 32-9 in Miami.

“It has been mentally challenging for this team,” Dwyane Wade said. “It is frustrating at times.”

Wade returned to action Tuesday after missing one game with a sore right knee. He went 2 of 10 from the field in the second half against the Sixers, and the Heat struggled mightily as a team against Philadelphia’s defense.

“We’re trying to get to our best every single night,” Spoelstra said. “We’re trying to get to some level of consistency, where we have had a lot of inconsistency with guys in and out of the lineup. So, right now, we’re in a mode where we’re trying to hold the fort and push forward. Forge ahead.”

The loss to the 76ers was the Heat’s ninth in 11 games at AmericanAirlines Arena, and finding consistency will be difficult against James and the Cavaliers. Spoelstra has used a makeshift starting lineup featuring Chris Andersen at center, with Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts out of action. McRoberts had season-ending surgery on Monday, and Bosh is doubtful for Thursday’s game. He has missed six in a row.

On Wednesday, Spoelstra said he “was not planning on” playing Bosh against the Cavaliers, but Christmas miracles have been known to happen … especially for national network games.

Bosh participated in the Heat’s lengthy film session, which focused solely on the debacle against the Sixers and didn’t touch on the Cavaliers. The Heat had 14 turnovers in the second half and shot 27 percent from the field.

“We constantly have to review, teach and own it before we move on,” Spoelstra said. “We couldn’t just brush this one under the rug. It was painful for all of us. It was a kick in the gut, but the only comfort we can find is with each other and get to work.”

The Cavaliers will be without center Anderson Varejao, who tore his Achilles tendon in a game on Tuesday. Varejao was the Cavaliers’ only true frontcourt power player, but the Heat is low on muscle inside as well. Andersen and Haslem are the team’s only healthy bigs.

Thursday: Cavaliers at Heat

When/where: 5 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.

TV/radio: ABC; WAXY 104.3 FM, 790 AM, and WAQI 710 AM (Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 55-39.

Noteworthy: The Heat has won 10 in a row against the Cavaliers. … Miami is 8-2 (.800) on Christmas, which is the second-highest winning percentage in the NBA. Portland is 14-3 (.824). … Dwyane Wade needs 13 points to move into fourth place on the all-time scoring list for Christmas games; he has 227. The top three: Kobe Bryant (383), Oscar Robison (377) and Shaquille O’Neal (272).

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