LeBron's next chapter starts with Heat preseason
LeBron James walked from the bench moments before tip-off with the traditional stoic look. He filled his hands with rosin powder, threw it into the air to create a white cloud, then clapped his hands three times.
Same as always.
Just totally different.
Amid the sort of fanfare hardly ever associated with a meaningless preseason game, James took the floor with the Miami Heat for the first time Tuesday night in the exhibition opener against the Detroit Pistons. The NBA's two-time reigning MVP joined Miami this summer, spurning a chance to stay with Cleveland and deciding he wanted to team up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade instead.
''The season,'' James said, ''is back.''
And a mere 3:17 into the season, there was the first problem: Wade limped off the floor, heading to the locker room for evaluation about five minutes later with a strained right hamstring and was ruled out for the rest of the night.
The Big 3 lasted a big three minutes.
No matter: James just took over.
He put much of his repertoire on display in the early going: no-look passes, drives to the rim, 3-pointers, even playing some point guard in the first quarter. It always wasn't perfect - he airballed one try from beyond the arc, never saw a wide-open Bosh under the basket on another possession.
At times, it was downright scintillating.
One play after missing Bosh, he set up his new teammate for a dunk that left the former Toronto forward screaming with delight. And with 4.7 seconds left in the first quarter, James ran off a pick set by Udonis Haslem, then spun around before going down the lane for a two-handed dunk - waving his arms with a flourish after giving Miami a 24-15 lead.
James had 12 points in the first 12 minutes, either scoring or assisting on eight of Miami's first 11 field goals. He returned to the game with 5:03 left in the half to a raucous ovation, and went into intermission with 14 points on 7 of 15 shooting. Miami led 58-38 at the break, holding Detroit to 39 percent shooting, with Bosh adding 12 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes.
''I think we competed, definitely defensively, which allowed us to get what we want - to get out and run,'' James told NBA TV at halftime before leaving the floor. ''We've got a lot of speed, a lot of quickness, and when you play defense like we did, holding an opponent under 40 percent shooting, we can do that.''
He took the floor for pregame at 7:18 p.m., one of the last three Heat players to emerge into view, sandwiched between Bosh and Wade, Metallica's ''Enter Sandman'' blaring through the arena as usual. The Heat, clad in black warmups, huddled in a hallway just behind the court, as dozens of people leaned to take photos with their cell phones for the first arrival.
James' longtime girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, was in the much-larger-than-usual preseason crowd, but his children weren't - school obligations, James said.
''As a basketball player, as a guy who loves the game of basketball, I'm excited about that, for the season to be back around,'' James said. ''I'm very happy about that.''
Bosh knew Tuesday was a big deal when his father insisted on coming to the game.
''He was that excited about it,'' Bosh said. ''He was ready to see us take the court for the first time. Just this fact that he was super-excited about it, that let me know kind of how everybody else is going to be. And if that's how everybody is, it makes it a lot more fun to play.''
The Pistons took this game seriously, making it a measure of where they are three weeks before the games start counting, center Ben Wallace said.
''They know everybody's going to be gunning at them,'' Wallace said. ''I heard them say that they know they put the bulls-eye on their back. That helps you to focus, helps you stay on your toes, stay on top of your game knowing that everyone is coming at you night-in and night-out.''
Pistons guard Tracy McGrady said he wasn't upset with what the Heat did this summer. He's jealous.
''I'm happy for those guys,'' McGrady said. ''I look forward to, when I'm done playing basketball, seeing them win a lot of championships.''
That's Miami's goal.
Outside, parking lots that used to charge $10 were asking $40 per space. Long lines of fans waited to get in, some wearing James, Wade and Bosh Heat jerseys - and a few wearing James' old No. 23 from Cleveland as well. A notoriously late-arriving Miami crowd showed up to see the pregame introductions, and roared when James' name was called first.
''You can tell it's an exciting time for this city,'' James said. ''And hopefully we can come through and do things that we need to do on the court to keep the fans excited.''
This seemed like a good first impression.
''I think it's going to be good for the guys who haven't worn a Heat uniform yet to have an opportunity to get out on their new home floor and see their new fans,'' Wade said before the game. ''I've been around for a little while, so I kind of know my way around here a little bit.''
Notes: Flo Rida and Gloria Estefan were in the crowd, and most seats were filled by tip-off - a far cry from preseason games in recent years, when the Heat typically played before a half-empty house. ... The Heat next play on Friday in Kansas City, Mo. against Oklahoma City - a Miami home game, technically - then head to San Antonio the next night.