CLEVELAND – He tuned out the boos. He smiled at the derisive chants. He embraced all the negativity Cleveland could muster.
LeBron James wasn't fazed by anything.
He brought his talents back home and reminded everyone — even the haters — why he's missed.
Returning as a villain to his native state and the city he scorned this summer, James scored 38 points — 24 in a virtuoso third-quarter performance — to lead the Miami Heat to a 118-90 win on Thursday night, turning his hostile homecoming into another embarrassing moment for the Cavaliers.
By halftime, James was the one having fun. By the fourth quarter, he was watching from the bench as Cavs fans headed into the cold for a disappointing drive home.
This wasn't the payback they waited five months to inflict.
James simply wouldn't allow it, but insisted his beatdown wasn't personal. At one point this summer, he compiled a roster of enemies.
"Cavs fans weren't on my list," he said. "I have the utmost respect for these fans. It's nothing personal and it won't be ever."
As he did so many times during seven seasons for the Cavs, the two-time league MVP did anything he wanted on the floor. In the third quarter, he made 10-of-12 shots, jumpers from every angle and taunted Cleveland's bench after draining a seemingly impossible baseline jumper.
"I know this court. I've made a lot of shots on this court," he said. "Just wanted to be aggressive, just try to keep them out of the game. I knew they were going to try to make a run in the third quarter, but we were able to get stops and we were able to get some shots."
James said his trash talked directed at the Cavs' bench was in fun.
"For me, it was," he said. "It was fun to have an opportunity to go against them."
With security guards forming a human barricade to line his entrance, James came hopping out of the tunnel and into the electrically charged atmosphere inside Quicken Loans Arena, as more than 20,000 fans, the same ones who once adored him, turned their fury on James.
It was rowdy, but thankfully, not violent. A Cavaliers spokesman said there was only one arrest and four ejections.
Just in case, Moondog, the Cavs' fuzzy mascot, wore a bulletproof vest.
Booed every time he touched the ball, James scored 14 points in the first half as the Heat opened a 59-40 lead, and threatened to turn the highly anticipated game into a blowout.
James quickly made certain of one.
Miami outscored Cleveland 36-25 in the third to open a 95-65 lead, prompting Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to pull his superstar. James spent the final 12 minutes as a spectator, glancing at the scoreboard and into the stands at so many familiar faces.
James remained defiant afterward, saying he didn't regret his decision to leave Cleveland.
"I don't want to apologize," he said. "I think my intentions were not to hurt anyone. My intentions were solely on kids during that whole process. I always say, decisions I make, I live with them. There's always ways you can correct them or ways you can do them better. At the end of the day, I live with them. I'm satisfied and happy right now."
Las Vegas placed odds on whether James would perform his pregame powder toss ritual at the scorer's table. He went through with it, leaving a cloud of dust above his head — a gesture fans here used to embrace but can't stomach any longer.
Security was super tight. One fan was immediately ejected after he pointed at James and screamed in the superstar's face before tip-off. The Cavaliers promised to safeguard James, who crushed them summer when he decided to leave as a free agent and join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
As the Akron native took pregame layups, Cleveland fans vented, some holding up signs that read "Akron Hates You Too," "Merry Quitness," and "Remember Game 5," a reference to his final home game with the Cavs, when he went just 3 of 14 and scored 15 in a lopsided loss to Boston in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals.
James was the first player introduced, and as he lined up for the national anthem, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was shown on the arena's giant scoreboard, drawing a raucous ovation. In the hours after James' infamous announcement on a one-hour TV special dubbed "The Decision," Gilbert ripped him in an open letter to Cavs fans and later accused the 25-year-old of quitting during the playoffs the past two seasons.
James looked up and noticed the ovation was for Gilbert. He shook his head, tapped his feet and turned to his new teammates, pumping his fist as he told them something.
He made his first trip to the foul line with 3:35 left in the first quarter. It used to be a time when he would be serenaded with the requisite "M-V-P" song, but this time it was different as the crowd broke into a chant of "Akron Hates You!"
After making his first shot, James chuckled and smiled broadly as fans continued to try and rattle him.
James will never forget his time with the Cavs.
"Seven great years, loved every part," he said. "Loved every moment, from the growth when I was an 18-year-old kid to a 25-year-old man. We tried our best as a team. Tried our best to bring a championship to the city and just tried to play hard every night. I have the utmost respect for this franchise, the utmost respect for these fans, and just continue the greatness for myself here in Miami and try to get better every day."
Before tip-off, James was segregated from his Heat teammates in a locker room he had only used as a high schooler. Two security officers and a media relations member kept reporters at bay as James dressed. Bouncing his head to the beat, James rapped along with music on his portable stereo before putting on his headphones. He briefly closed his eyes, and folded his hands as if in prayer.
Across the room, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who followed James to Miami, held court with reporters interested in hearing about his return. The beloved big man known simply as "Z," Ilgauskas, the Cavs' career leader in rebounds and games played, was wrestling with his own emotions.
"I had a great time here," said Ilgauskas, drafted by the Cavs in 1996. "I miss people and I miss my friends. I don't miss the weather. ... It's home."
In the hours leading up to tip-off, everyone offered an opinion on what James was about to experience. Even the nation's highest-rated basketball player got involved. President Barack Obama added to the drama with a short, simple, and not-so-sweet description:
"It's going to be brutal."
That, from a guy who had just gotten 12 stitches removed after getting his lip split open in a rough pickup game.
The day began with Cavs guard Mo Williams taking a subtle swipe at his former friend and ex-teammate. An avid Atlanta Braves supporter, he sported a Boston Red Sox jacket following the team's morning shootaround, maybe an early indication of what James, a die-hard New York Yankees fan, would expect for his first game in Cleveland as a visitor.
"It's almost like your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding," Williams said.
The Heat kept to themselves during the day, staying back at their hotel. But following a walkthrough with his teammates, James delayed his traditional game-day nap to meet with one of his business partners in the lounge of the Ritz-Carlton.
Once the meeting ended, James headed for the elevator and was asked if he was ready for whatever Cleveland's fans were about to unleash.
"Yes sir," he replied. "I will be. I will be."