By JEFF BARTL
(AP) -- For all the heartbreak and feelings of betrayal Cleveland fans have experienced since LeBron James left, the MVP's defection to South Beach and the Cavaliers' subsequent losing season contributed to Kyrie Irving becoming the new face of the franchise.
Though James' high praise for the second-year point guard has rumors swirling the two could eventually join forces in Cleveland, both players simply are focused on the stellar competition each currently provides for the other.
James looks to improve to 8-1 against his former team while guiding the Miami Heat to an 11th consecutive victory as they host Irving and the Cavaliers on Sunday night.
The Cavaliers finished an Eastern Conference-worst 19-63 the season after James' departure while the Heat made it to the NBA finals, but winning the draft lottery allowed Cleveland to select Irving with the No. 1 overall pick.
While James has won another MVP and his only championship since joining Miami, Irving's potential has Cleveland fans believing in a bright future - one that has the possibility of including both.
Irving, despite missing 11 games with a broken finger, has averaged 23.5 points, made his first All-Star appearance and won the 3-point contest at All-Star weekend after winning rookie of the year in 2011-12.
James, who can opt out of his current contract in 2014, has taken notice of Irving's talent, leading to rumors he would consider a return to his former team.
"I said it earlier this year or last year that in a couple years, he'd be (one of the) top two or top three best point guards in the league. He's headed there already," James said over All-Star weekend. "His ability to shoot the ball, his ability to drive the ball and finish - I think he's one of the best finishers we have in our game.
"He's doing some great things right now and they should be excited about having him in Cleveland."
Whether James joins Irving is a possibility neither is focusing on at this point. For now, Irving simply realizes facing James always will provide a challenge.
"He's taken everything everybody said about him that he didn't do well (when he first left Cleveland) and is proving it all the time now," Irving said. "That's as simply put as you can say it. He's doing everything people said he couldn't do. It's fun to watch."
Irving averaged 16.7 points in three meetings with James and the Heat last season, but his broken finger forced him to miss Miami's 110-108 win Nov. 24.
James, averaging 26.3 points against his former team, hit 10 of 16 shots and scored 30 points in that contest, also assisting on Ray Allen's go-ahead 3-pointer with 18 seconds remaining as the Heat rallied from a seven-point deficit with less than two minutes to play.
James recorded his 43rd career triple-double, including the postseason, as Miami (39-14) extended its winning streak with a 114-90 victory at Philadelphia on Saturday.
"I was going to stay out there until I got it," said James, who finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. "I wasn't going to let this one slip away. I've had too many games where I was one assist, one rebound away. I wasn't coming out."
James' lone triple-double against Cleveland, coincidentally, came on the road in his only loss to the Cavaliers.
Irving finished with 12 points and nine assists in Saturday's 118-94 win over Orlando as Cleveland (18-37) made its first stop on a three-game trip that concludes Tuesday in Chicago.
"We're just trying to win as many games as possible," Irving said. "In order to do that, we just have to find consistency on this team and it starts with this road trip. It is a challenge for us as a team and we are looking forward to it."
The Heat, kicking off a three-game stretch at AmericanAirlines Arena, are an East-best 23-3 at home.
Updated February 24, 2013