Posted: Friday December 3, 2010 4:18PM ; Updated: Friday December 3, 2010 6:57PM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>THE SIXTH MAN

Toughest hurdle still ahead for LeBron, fellow Miami stars

Story Highlights

LeBron James has never barked back at angry fans or critical reporters

His 38-point showing vs. Cavs seemed to come easily; winning a title won't

More: Matt Harpring feels David Lee's pain, Kyrylo Fesenko's journey, great trios

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Silencing the boos in Cleveland was the easy part for LeBron James; winning a title will be the biggest obstacle.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
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The worst is over. LeBron James was supposed to be in fear for his safety when he led his new team into his old, angry city Thursday night. Now that he has gone back to Cleveland again and responded with his best game of this notorious season, he can say with confidence that the role of villain isn't so bad. He has nothing left to fear. What could be worse than subjecting oneself to tens of thousands of newly sworn enemies?

Whenever times are hard, James can look back on this night and remember the 38 points he scored in three quarters, and how he turned the owner, team and all its fans into his victims.

Ever since last summer, when he instantly transformed himself from Michael Jordan's heir into a far more divisive and controversial star than Jordan ever has been, James has appeared to be coming to grips with his new public character. He has appeared uncertain of how to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and of how to joust constructively with coach Erik Spoelstra.

One night doesn't fix everything, but it has to reduce anxiety. He looks more and more like someone who cares less and less about what people might think of him. No doubt he was caught off guard by the response to his televised announcement last July; but ever since then he has appeared to be encouraging his critics. When TNT's Craig Sager asked James after Thursday's game if he would like to apologize to the fans of Cleveland, he said no, he would not, and then he went onto flaunt his own "greatness," as he chose to put it.

He doesn't rule out racism as a reason for the backlash against him. He gripes in small but telling ways about his new coach. He goes to Cleveland and tosses chalk in the faces of lovers-turned-haters and then -- far from looking overwhelmed or victimized by the oppressive climate -- he destroys his former team while confronting the fans who sought to intimidate him and making them feel less influential than ever.

Is he purposely inciting opinion? Is his marketing goal to remain viral by encouraging critics to keep criticizing?

I don't know what to make of this next part, but I find it interesting: James (and the same goes for Wade and Bosh) has yet to snap or snarl publicly at reporters who scrutinize his every move. This is something I don't remember seeing in pro sports. I'm used to players barking back at intrusive questioning or critical speculation. That James, Wade and Bosh have refused to engage themselves emotionally in the public debate over their failures is another sign that these AAU-bred stars have a different set of values and goals than the generations who came before them. Magic, Bird, Isiah, Michael, Shaq and especially Kobe -- each would have derided reporters for making too much of his shoulder bump with a coach, as was made of James' brief collision with Spoelstra recently.

As a member of a coaching staff that recently beat Miami pointed out to me, the Heat's problems have little to do with the coaching and much to do with the fact that James was shooting 31 percent outside 10 feet through his first 18 games, and Wade was 26.6 percent from the same distances through his opening 17 appearances.

"Why haven't they been running more?" I asked the coach.

"Because they don't have a shot-blocker," he answered. "All teams are going to do against them is zone up and force them to shoot from the outside. They'll be a championship team in two years when James and Wade have improved their shooting and they've added some size."

In the meantime, James has less to worry about now that the bad names can no longer hurt him. He walked into the arena that he made toxic, and he walked out smiling and celebrating.

Winning a championship, though, won't come nearly as easily.

 
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