CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James could finally be himself. He smiled easily, joked around and blew a few kisses to the crowd.
This trip home was different than the others. There was less tension, fewer boos, nothing to fear.
This time, James almost felt welcomed.
James scored 28 points and seemed more relaxed than in previous games back in Cleveland, leading the Miami Heat to their eighth straight win, 95-84 over the Cavaliers on Wednesday night.
He added eight rebounds and eight assists in his fifth game as a visitor against the Cavs, the team that drafted him and the one he led to the NBA finals before leaving as a free agent three years ago to chase NBA championships in Miami. James improved to 11-1 against Cleveland.
Unlike his previous four visits, James wasn’t the target of nonstop booing or taunts. There wasn’t the hatred that filled Quicken Loans Arena the first time he came back on Dec. 2, 2010.
“It’s been less and less since the first time I was here,” said James, soaking his ankles in an ice bucket and drinking a postgame smoothie. “Nothing can be worse than that.”
Dwyane Wade added 22 points and Michael Beasley 17 for Miami, which coasted during long stretches and never appeared threatened.
Dion Waiters, the subject of trade rumors, scored a season-high 24 and Kyrie Irving had 16 for Cleveland.
The Heat opened a 15-point lead in the third and responded to every spurt by the Cavs, who got within eight in the final two minutes.
James outscored Cleveland’s starters 28-26, and except for arguing a few calls with the officials that didn’t go his way, the four-time MVP and two-time champ enjoyed his visit home as he reminded Cavaliers fans what they’ve been missing.
After the final horn, James waved to some fans and tossed his headband and wrist bracelets into the crowd the way he always did when he played in Cleveland.
“Of late, there have been some cheers here,” Wade said. “At the end of the day, he’s from Ohio. I think some fans are proud of that.”
The Cavs, who came in to the season with playoff expectations, have lost four in a row and seven of eight. Six of their 11 losses have been by more than 10 points.
“Everyone else can write us off,” Irving said. “But in this locker room, we believe in each other. We’re going to figure this out.”
The atmosphere inside the arena was subdued compared to James’ previous trips.
There was energy, but not the same anger as many Clevelanders seem to have moved on and are more concerned with the struggling Cavs getting better than venting at James.
The disgust has decayed. This time it was a game, not an event.
In fact, things have cooled to the point that a group of fans have started a campaign to bring back James, who can opt out of his contract and become a free agent next summer. The group handed out neon green “Come Home LeBron” T-shirts outside the arena before the game.
He received the usual boos when he took the floor, but he was soon blowing kisses to fans in the seats as he recognized familiar faces and friends. Before the opening tip, James pointed toward Cavs coach Mike Brown, who nodded toward a former player who has done a lot of growing up.
James started slowly, scoring just 3 points in the first quarter, which ended with the Cavs leading 28-22.
He changed shoes between quarters, swapping a red pair for black ones. In different kicks, his game kicked into gear. He scored nine points in the second quarter, when the Heat turned up their defensive pressure and held the Cavaliers to 14 points on 5 of 25 shooting.
“I didn’t feel good early on, but once I got back into the game I started feeling better,” James said. “In the second quarter I got into some good rhythm. We started knocking down some shots and I got some rebounds and steals.”
James seemed intent on ending his night early. He scored Miami’s first eight points of the third and fed Chris Bosh for two layups. James dropped a 3-pointer and his free throw gave the Heat their biggest lead at 68-53.
The Cavs came in reeling following a 30-point beatdown in San Antonio on Saturday.
Adding to their disarray was a report that the club is trying to trade Waiters, who denied he asked to be moved and insists he loves playing in Cleveland.
“It’s just nonsense,” Waiters said. “There’s been things thrown out there that haven’t been true at all.”
NOTES: James will host Thanksgiving for his teammates at his 30,000-square-foot mansion in Bath, Ohio, on Thursday. James decided to have his teammates over when he realized the team was headed to Canada to play on the day after the holiday. “Toronto doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” he said. “It was either do it at a hotel or do it at my house. I’d much rather do it at my house.” … Brown said No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett has been making steady progress. “He’s a young guy trying to find his way,” Brown said. … The Heat were without forwards Shane Battier (flu) and Udonis Haslam (back).