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LeBron returns to find Heat in different state

This time he will be introduced first not out of deference to Dwyane Wade’s standing as South Florida’s initial basketball icon, but because he arrives in opposing colors.

LeBron James insists he will soak it all in, no matter how the moment plays out.

“To say I haven’t thought about going back, I would be lying,” James said of today’s Christmas Day return to AmericanAirlines Arena, a nationally televised game that again casts him as Miami Heat opponent, after four seasons as Miami Heat NBA Finalist. “It’s going to be great to be back in that building around those unbelievable fans. The memories will definitely come back, being part of the organization for four years.

“I’m going to relive a lot of moments in my head and go from there.”

The timing of the game, however, casts it as something beyond emotional reunion. While James has the Cleveland Cavaliers on an upward arc in the Eastern Conference, the Heat are coming off one of the ugliest losses in franchise history, Tuesday’s humiliation at the hands of the league-worst Philadelphia 76ers, when a 23-point third-quarter lead was squandered.

That had the Heat back at work Wednesday on the practice court at AmericanAirlines Arena, with the Cavaliers taking Christmas Eve off in the wake of their Tuesday blowout victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

To Heat coach Erik Spoelstra that makes today as much about avoiding falling a season-worst four game below .500 as embracing the player who helped lift his team to unprecedented heights.

But he also appreciates the moment.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to deny what happened the last four years. There are pictures of LeBron all over the arena,” he said. “It’s a great legacy. That was a great team. Our fans aren’t angry. They appreciate what he did.”

Spoelstra’s players appreciate the moment, appreciate the player who forever changed their lives during a four-year run that included a pair of NBA championships.

“We had a great four years together,” forward and co-captain Udonis Haslem said. “We had a lot of success together and we’ll continue to be friends. I’m someone who can appreciate how much it means to be playing at home.”

That kinship endures.

“It hasn’t changed; it won’t change,” said Wade, the Heat’s other co-captain. “We have a great friendship and a great respect for each other. It won’t change. We’ll compete against each other and try to win the ballgame. Before and after, we’re friends.

“He made the right decision, he went home. I look at the situation he was put in, and I don’t know too many people who wouldn’t have made the same decision he made.”

Which means for today …

“He should get a great ovation,” Wade said. “Then, when the game starts, you root for your team.”

Lost in the buildup to today is that the Heat and James already have faced each other as opponents, during a preseason game in Rio de Janeiro.

“We already played each other,” Wade said. “The NBA messed up putting us together in the preseason.”

James has tried to cast today as a business trip, but also knows better. There will be those who make it a moment to revel one final time in all he delivered, including NBA championships in 2012 and ’13. There will be those who will remember only how he shunned Pat Riley during the free-agency process, left the Heat in scramble mode after he delayed his decision to return home to Cleveland.

“I don’t really get involved in what to expect and what I expect,” James said. “My job is to go down there and try to win a basketball game and just live in the moment. At the end of the day, the game will be over in 48 minutes and we move on to play Orlando. We go on from there.”

The Cavaliers already are in a good place. The Heat? Not so much. By the time James announced his decision on July 11, top-tier free agents such as Kyle Lowry, Marcin Gortat and Carmelo Anthony already had committed elsewhere or were on the verge. Instead, the Heat were left with complementary replacement pieces such as Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng and Danny Granger, not the type of components needed on a night such as Tuesday, when Wade could not do it alone.

None of that was James’ concern then. It won’t be today either, with the Heat again likely to be without center Chris Bosh, who has missed the past six games with a strained left calf.

“I never put too much pressure into it,” James said. “I know it’s great to go out and get a win against your former teammates and your former team, but I never put too much pressure into it.”

To James, the emotional homecoming came on opening night at Quicken Loans Arena against the New York Knicks.

“The emotional side,” he said, “is a total difference from going back to Miami. That aspect, I’ll just relive a lot of moments with my teammates, what we were able to accomplish in those four years. In that sense, it’s different.”

LeBron James has a new set of sidekicks, but his memories of Miami still run strong. AP PHOTO