CLEVELAND — Cradling the ball and staring at the rim, LeBron James stood at the free-throw line inside a gigantic pressure cooker.
“There was a lot of hatred in the air,” Miami center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said.
James inhaled it and laughed.
As more than 20,000 jilted fans, many of the same ones who wore his jersey and routinely serenaded him with “M-V-P” chants, tried to rattle James with cries of “Akron Hates You!” he smiled so widely that his mouthpiece nearly fell to the court.
Cleveland fans wanted revenge.
James only gave them more pain.
“I just tried to keep a clear head about it,” James said of the moment. “It’s nothing personal with these fans and it won’t be — ever.”
His homecoming went just as he planned.
Tuning out earsplitting boos and shrugging off vulgar chants intended to throw him off his game, James scored a season-high 38 points — 24 in a third quarter of magnificence — and led the Miami Heat to their most complete victory to date, 118-90 over the Cavaliers on Thursday night.
James didn’t even have to play in the fourth quarter when Cleveland fans continued to boo him every chance they could.
The crowd was fighting mad.
The Cavaliers cowered.
Afterward, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert bit his lower lip as he took the long way out of Quicken Loans Arena. He didn’t want to pass Miami’s locker room, where James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — the Heat’s celebrated Three Kings — basked in a win they hope can further bond them and propel them to the NBA title everyone seemed to feel was destined before a sluggish start.
The Heat may one day look back at James’ overhyped return as a turning point.
“The one thing we preach in Miami is family,” said Wade, who added 22 points. “This is our brother coming back into a very emotional situation. We knew it was going to be a very hostile environment. So we had each other’s back. We knew this guy can handle himself in any situation. He can rise to the occasion when things look the darkest, and he did that tonight.”
It didn’t go the way Cleveland fans hoped. They waited five months for a chance to yell and scream and cuss at James, who toyed and teased them this summer by hinting that he would re-sign with the Cavaliers only to announce he was leaving for Miami during a one-hour TV special.
They felt betrayed by one of their own, the kid from Akron they watched grow into a man.
Cleveland wanted an apology. It never came.
James refused to acknowledge that he had done Cavs fans wrong. In his eyes, he was let down, too.
“We had seven great years,” said James, who added eight assists and just five rebounds in 30 minutes. “A lot of memories I have here and I have the utmost respect for my fans. I understand their frustration. I was frustrated, also, because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to at the end of the day.”
Earlier in the day, James sat with friends and associates in the lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. He was asked if he was ready to take on whatever wrath Cleveland fans had in store.
“Yes sir,” he said. “I will be. I will be.”
He was more than ready.
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. He taunted Cleveland’s bench after draining a seemingly impossible baseline shot.
“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 talk directed at the Cavs’ bench was in fun.
“For me, it was,” he said.
The Cavs weren’t amused, but none of them did anything about it. There were no rough fouls, no bumps, no resistance.
With security guards forming a human barricade to line his entrance, James came hopping out of the tunnel and into the electrically charged atmosphere of the Q as a national TV audience braced itself for the possibility of an ugly incident.
It was rowdy, 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 before blowing it open in the third, outscoring Cleveland 36-25. With his team up 30, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra pulled James, who spent the final 12 minutes as a spectator, glancing at the giant scoreboard and into the stands at so many familiar faces.
The Cavaliers gave up. The crowd, which held up signs saying “Quitter” ”Merry Quitness” ”Traitor” and “You Lied”, wouldn’t go quietly.
As the clock wound down, fans chanted “Scot-tie Pip-pen!” toward James, who shook his head and managed to laugh.
He was the first player introduced before tip-off, and as James lined up for the national anthem, Gilbert was shown on the arena’s giant scoreboard, drawing a raucous ovation. In the hours after James’ infamous announcement that he was leaving, 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, saw Gilbert and shook his head. He then broke out of line and pumped his fists as he reminded his teammates what this game meant to him.