Earlier Wednesday, prior to his fourth return to Cleveland with the Heat, LeBron James was asked about what reaction he expected, in a city that many say has softened on him some.
“Can’t get no worse than year one, Dec. 2, 2010,” James said. “Can’t get no worse than that, so I’ll be all right.”
He was correct.
He’s fine, just fine.
Instead, it was again poor Cleveland that suffered.
Oh, did it suffer, in this rather unbelievable 98-95 Heat victory.
The night had a little bit of everything, from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s conciliatory tweet to a scoreboard water leak to a fan storming the floor…. to praise James.
The tweet? “Cleveland Cavaliers young talent makes our future very bright. Clearly, LeBron’s is as well. Time for everyone to focus on the road ahead.”
The leak? It required both teams to return to their locker rooms as the arena crew took 40 minutes to clear the condensation.
The fan? “Well, he said he missed me,” James said. “And come back please. And I didn’t have much time to say much to him, because security got to him.”
Still, this night will be remembered merely for the streak, and its extension to 24 games by overcoming a 27-point third quarter deficit.
For a while, it appeared that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had been prescient, when stating after the shootaround that, this time of year, you’re facing two different types of dangerous teams: those fighting for playoff seeding and those with nothing to lose. Cleveland was among the latter, out of contention and nearly out of options, with Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters all injured.
“You don’t know what to expect,” Spoelstra warned.
Then, once the game finally tipped, the Cavaliers began mopping the floor with the Heat on both ends, dominating the boards, holding Miami to 10 points in the second quarter, and hitting shots that left Heat players shaking their heads. It was 67-40 with 7:27 left in the third quarter, after James — enduring one of his rare clunkers with the Heat — clanked a long 3-pointer.
“The streak wasn’t on my mind,” James said. “Us getting blown out crossed my mind a couple of times.”
Yet James believed “we still had time.” Spoelstra felt the same. He subbed Shane Battier for Udonis Haslem, going to the explosive NBA Finals lineup that he has used sparingly of late and, then, as it started humming, “just let it ride.” Battier made three 3-pointers in his next four minutes, before James — with a layup, block, rebound and assist to Ray Allen — closed the quarter strong.
Suddenly, the deficit was down to nine.
“It happened fast,” Spoelstra said. “Lightning in a bottle.”
Then James, who broke Cleveland’s collective heart in 2010, truly began torturing anew. His was a flurry full of fury, one that featured villainous interaction with a courtside fan dressed in black, as James started staring him down before his 3-point shots even shredded the net.
Next time you looked up, with Mario Chalmers stroking a 3-pointer, the Heat led by seven, 91-84.
Miami had outscored Cleveland 51-17 in a 14-minute stretch, and it still wasn’t over. There would be more pain to come, after the Cavaliers cut the lead to one, and had a shot to tie. Wayne Ellington, who hurt the Heat while with Memphis earlier this season, left a stepback 23-footer short.
Ball out of bounds to Miami.
Two free throws for James, both good.
Just before the buzzer, C.J. Miles rushed a 27-footer. On line. No good.
So ended what James (25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) called “one of the most bizarre, unique days of my life.”
So continued a streak that now officially defies description.
Noteworthy: Prior to the game, Two days after James’s vicious dunk over Celtics guard Jason Terry, it was still a subject of considerable social media conversation, with users superimposing undertakers and tombstones next to Terry. “I’ve had a chance to [look at] it, and it was one of my better ones,” James said. “The fact that it happened to J.T. made it that much sweeter. Because we all know J.T. and he talks too much sometimes. And I’m glad it happened to him.”… Pat Riley, who has been scouting college games, turned 68. “I used to be in charge of the special birthday video,” said Spoelstra, the Heat’s former video coordinator. “I think that’s where I earned his respect.”