LeBron James and the Heat remain just out of reach (Jason Miller/ Getty).
Heading into Wednesday night's road contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat looked primed to extend their winning streak to 24 games and push closer to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' all-time record of 33 in a row. The Cavs entered the game in a rough spot, having lost three in a row and seven of their previous nine games. In addition, they were forced to play without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and dangerous rookie scorer Dion Waiters (plus the long-absent Anderson Varejao), two players with the potential to match Miami's firepower.
In the end, the Heat won a close game, 98-95. But the score doesn't reflect the intensity of one of the wildest games of the NBA regular season. It's notable any time LeBron James returns to the city he left in the summer of 2010, but this game upped the ante.
After a bizarre delay involving carbon dioxide leaking from the scoreboard, the Cavaliers overwhelmed the Heat to take a stunning 55-34 halftime lead. Miami looked unprepared and unable to contend with a more energetic and inspired team, scoring just 10 points in the second quarter and seemingly assured of having their streak ended at 23 games and etched in the record books as the second-longest in NBA history. At the same time, the Cavaliers played well above expectations, getting terrific performances from second-year forward Tristan Thompson and the backcourt of Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington. At the 7:43 mark of the third quarter, Cavs center Tyler Zeller completed a three-point play to push the lead to 67-40. It looked like the Heat could be content surrendering and sitting their stars in the fourth quarter.
And then we were all made witness to the awesome power of the 2012-13 Miami Heat. After the jump, get the full rundown of how they managed to extend the streak, complete with video highlights.
With 7:01 remaining in the third quarter, James split a pair of free throws. From that point until the 3:01 mark of the fourth quarter — 19 minutes of game time — the Heat went on a 55-19 run to take a nine-point lead of their own. But those numbers don't communicate the sheer force of their attack. The Heat reversed their fortunes in what seemed like an instant, suddenly forcing the Cavs into bad passes, finding their own shooters for wide-open 3-pointers, and generally just looking like a team that could create a win, no matter the deficit, simply because they wanted to. That task was much easier against a Cavs team without some of its best players, certainly, but it's nonetheless not something that most NBA teams can do. This is a special group.
Not surprisingly, the push started with LeBron, who up until the time of the run was having one of the worst games of his historically great season. As noted by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com, LeBron had only seven points, five assists, and two rebounds midway through the third quarter, only to finish with a 23-point, 10-assist, 12-rebound triple-double. His work on the boards was perhaps the most impressive part of the game, with James regularly shedding box-outs and fighting through opponents with his superior strength and athleticism.
He also played up the drama of the moment, staring out at the crowd after his game-tying 3-pointer at the 10:26 mark of the fourth quarter. While there's a well-known history of bad feelings toward LeBron in Cleveland, it didn't seem like he challenged them in defiance. In fact, one Cavs fan even rushed the court to try to convince James to come back to Cleveland in 2014, as some reports have suggested. It was an intense scene, and the fans were part of that, but the emotion on display didn't seem dangerously hostile.
To the Cavs' credit, they did not let the Heat walk away with this game. They held the Heat scoreless from the 2:33 mark all the way to the final four seconds, getting the margin down to 96-95 in the process. With five seconds left, Ellington hoisted a long (and not particularly ideal) 3-pointer for an improbable chance to win. He missed the shot, but it looked for a second as if the Cavs might get a second chance. LeBron and Thompson battled for the rebound, with the ball initially being called off Thompson's hand. However, the initial replay suggested that James touched the ball last, although it was not so obvious that it had to have been overturned. The officials decided not to overturn the call, as is their prerogative, and Cleveland's Alonzo Gee had to foul LeBron on the ensuing possession. He made both free throws to push the lead to three points, and C.J. Miles's attempt to send the game to overtime clanged off the rim.
This game would have been incredible even outside of the context of the streak, but it also served as perhaps the best example yet of why it's so difficult to put together a sustained run of wins in the modern NBA. With so many games and so much talent around the league, even an apparently major gap in talent can't make up for all the variables at play in 48 minutes of competition. If a team gets hot and the opponent can't summon the energy and execution to come out on top, there's likely to be an upset.
It's a testament to the Heat's talent, skill, and resilience that they've been able to rise above that craziness for 24 straight games. It's very likely that they'll have to do it again in the future, yet it seems hard to imagine that any other game over the rest of the streak will match the twists and turns of this one.
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