James returns to play Heat for first time with Lakers
MIAMI -- On Sunday night, LeBron James returns to American Airlines Arena, where he won two of his three NBA championships, two of his four league MVP awards and two of his three trophies for NBA Finals MVP as the star of the Miami Heat.
Still, the game is one that has been circled on the calendar for Miami Heat fans, and it will be interesting to see how they greet their former superstar.
As for the teams, neither one is elite - the Lakers (8-7) lost to the Orlando Magic on Saturday night and are just 3-4 on the road this season. They had a four-game win streak until the Magic prevailed 130-117.
James sat out the fourth quarter after Orlando had built a 21-point lead.
"I give credit to the group that was out there," James said of the Lakers reserves who cut Orlando's lead to 10 points before folding. "They continued to fight."
Miami is just 6-9 overall and 3-5 at home.
The Heat has split their two-game series against the Lakers in each of the past three years, but, of course, the series takes on new meaning now that James is on the roster.
Prior to the Orlando game, James had been on a roll, averaging 29.8 points on 55.1 percent shooting during the four-game win streak.
James entered the weekend leading the Lakers in scoring (27.6), rebounds (7.9) and assists (7.2). Kyle Kuzma (17.6) and Brandon Ingram (15.2) are the second- and third-scoring options, respectively. Center JaVale McGee leads the team in blocks (2.9) and averages 14.1 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Former lottery pick Lonzo Ball starts at point guard, but he is an odd fit with James because of his lack of shooting prowess. He is averaging 8.7 points and 4.9 assists. Ball was scoreless in 28 minutes on Saturday, missing all five of his shots.
However, backup point guard Rajon Rondo is expected to miss the next month due to a broken bone in his right hand.
"He is missed," Lakers coach Luke Walton said. "But our group (overall) has been good."
Miami has its own injury issues as forward James Johnson (hernia) and guard Dion Waiters (ankle) have yet to play this season. Johnson is expected to return against the Lakers, which could be a boost for Miami. But the Heat could be without starting point guard Goran Dragic (knee) and starting wing Rodney McGruder (quad). Both are listed as questionable.
Shooting guard Josh Richardson (20.6) leads the Heat in scoring. Dragic is second in scoring (16.3) and leads in assists (4.7), and his absence would be major for Miami.
Heat center Hassan Whiteside is averaging 13.8 points while leading the team in rebounds (11.0) and blocks (3.0). His matchup with McGee - two big-time shot-blockers - should be interesting.
If Dragic sits, more will be required from combo guard Tyler Johnson (11.1 points) and shooter Wayne Ellington (9.4 points). Forwards Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo are other contributors of note.
Still, this Heat roster is a lot less talented than it was when James, Wade and Chris Bosh led Miami to four straight NBA Finals (2011-2014).
Indeed, it's been a struggle for the Heat since James left Miami in the summer of 2014. The Heat has won only one playoff series since King James departed.
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra prefers to focus on the positives with James as opposed to the bruised feelings he created in the minds of many when he left the team high and dry.
"Players and staff go different ways," Spoelstra said, "but you still have that common bond."