Brotherhood endures, but Miami Heat past LeBron James hangover

"You're friends before the game and you're friends after the game," Dwyane Wade said of playing LeBron James. "But during the game ... you want to beat each other." Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

MIAMI -- Two seasons after his abrupt departure on the heels of four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, LeBron James' former Miami Heat teammates still affectionately consider him a family member.

They still eat together.

They vacation together.

They reminisce about old times together.

There is no love lost between James and the five remaining Miami teammates -- with whom the four-time league MVP won his only two championships while with the Heat. So when Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen visit Cleveland for the Heat's game Friday against the Cavaliers, they'll embrace someone they clearly consider a brother.

Family matters aside, James also represents something else to the Heat: a barrier. A return to title contention likely means going through James and the defending conference champions.

"Hell yeah, it's a big deal," Bosh said Thursday before the Heat boarded a flight to Cleveland. "It's just like playing against your brother. You go hardest against him. That's just how it is. You always want to show out. You never want to lose to a close family member."

Despite their respective seasons taking drastic turns after the All-Star break in February, the Heat split their four games against the Cavaliers last season, with each winning at home. While James ultimately steered Cleveland out of a 19-20 rut and into the NBA Finals in his first season back, Miami stumbled through an injury-ravaged 37-45 season and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.

The Heat clearly struggled during their post-LeBron hangover, but believe they've retooled strongly enough entering this season to reemerge as a legitimate threat to contend atop the Eastern Conference. If last season was about proving they could get LeBron out of their collective system, then this season is all about constructing a system that endures an 82-game schedule and produces a healthy run in the playoffs.

Wade told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith during a recent TV interview that, "LeBron knows we're coming for him. They're at the top of the East -- everyone is coming for them."

Although the two remain especially close, Wade said Thursday that any emotional baggage from James' departure in the summer of 2014 no longer exists. Wade saw James grapple with the decision to leave Miami and return to Cleveland, but insists he never tried to sway James to stay with the Heat.

"It's always been easy to separate," Wade said of compartmentalizing the relationship. "I don't know how many times or how many different ways I can say it. You're friends before the game and you're friends after the game. But during the game … you want to beat each other. It's always been that way. I felt like last year we matched up pretty well with them, but we'll see how this year goes."

The production from Wade and James entering their 26th head-to-head matchup have been almost identical. James' teams are 14-11 entering Friday, and he has averaged 29 points on 47.3 percent shooting, with 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game. Wade has countered with 27.1 points on 46.5 percent shooting, with 6.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds.

Now in their 13th NBA seasons, the two are adjusting to roles that call for more deferring as they pace themselves early in the season. Wade had 20 points and five assists in 29 minutes during Wednesday's season-opening win against Charlotte. After scoring 25 points on 22 shots in an opening-night loss to the Bulls, the Cavaliers needed only 12 points and 31 minutes from James in Wednesday's 30-point win in Memphis. Afterward, James said he wants Cleveland's offense to run through forward Kevin Love.

"You want to measure yourself against the best team, and I think it's more about that storyline than any other storyline," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We didn't uncover a secret trick that the rest of the league doesn't know [about James' game]. He'll compute and adjust to whatever scheme you're playing. But every single possession you have to be committed to making it tough, making him."

Haslem has heard the reports about James dealing with a back ailment, but doesn't expect anything less than an MVP-level performance. He has seen James shake off or play through issues so many times before.

"Obviously, as a friend, I wish him the best health but as a competitor, we battle through injuries and we don't make excuses," Haslem said as he summed up with a fitting analogy to explain the lingering bond with James. "He came down [before training camp] and we had brunch together. We chopped it up. We talked. I've been competing against friends all my life. It's like going against your boy at the park. Sometimes you fight and don't speak for a week. And then, you'll be back friends again."