The two young stars put on a show of dazzling dunks, drives and playoff-caliber hustle that awed fans, their teammates and a coach who witnessed the legendary battles between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
“People got a view of absolute greatness,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “It’s absolutely beyond description. I haven’t seen players do that in a long, long time.”
“It’s probably the best matchup I’ve been in,” said Wade, who finished with a season-high 44 points.
“It was great for the game. It was two young guys trying to propel their teams to a win. I had fun. I know he had fun.”
Cleveland started out flat and trailed for most of the second half as James and Wade dueled to the delight of the sold-out crowd.
The two defended each other several times and even dove on the floor fighting for a loose ball. Wade outscored James 21-18 in the fourth quarter and had Miami’s final 12 points.
Each time the Cavaliers got close, Wade would hit a jumper or make a highlight-reel drive to the rim for the Heat, who were without Shaquille O’Neal.
“He surprises me sometimes but he’s Flash and can dominate a game,” James said.
James finally put Cleveland up for good, 101-99, on a slam with 1:13 remaining that left Shandon Anderson, who was looking for an offensive foul, shaking his head.
Wade missed a 22-foot jumper at the other end. On the next possession, James dished to Donyell Marshall, who threw down a dunk that made former Cavaliers player and current announcer Austin Carr jump up out of his seat. The assist gave James his sixth triple-double this season.
James had 12 rebounds and 10 assists, shooting 16-for-25 from the field and 13-for-14 from the foul line. Wade’s line was almost as impressive with nine assists, eight rebounds and 18-of-36 shooting.
The two hugged at midcourt and patted each other on the back of the head after the final buzzer.
“We have love for each other. We are great friends,” James said. “I told him to keep doing what he was doing for his team, and he said the same to me. We love competing against one another.”
Both Marshall and Payton said the two young stars reminded them of Magic and Bird.
“That’s what the NBA is about, two young up and coming guys having big games like that,” Payton said.
James got help from Damon Jones, who scored 12 points, all on 3s, and is 15-for-24 from 3-point range in his last five games. Ilgauskas scored 12 points and reserve Anderson Varejao had 10 points and eight rebounds.
“Andy is Andy,” James said. “He is going to play his heart out. He is going to hit the floor. He is going to get rebounds.”
Udonis Haslem scored 16 with 11 rebounds for the Heat, whose three-game winning streak ended.
The Heat was without two starters: O’Neal, who missed his second straight game because of a hyperextended left knee, and James Posey. Michael Doleac and Derek Anderson started and combined for eight points. Alonzo Mourning also was inactive.
“Without Zo and Shaq, that made it tough,” Riley said.
The Cavaliers, who clinched a playoff spot with a win over Dallas on Wednesday night, improved to 43-29 in their drive to lock up the fourth playoff seed.
James is averaging 40.4 points over his last five games.
“He makes me look like I can coach,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “He waived me off so many times, called a play, and got us over the hump tonight. I should’ve just sat down and just let him get his triple-double and coach the team.”
Wade broke Miami’s single-season scoring record with 1,894 points. … Cleveland and Miami split the season series 2-2. … The Cavaliers are 14 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 1992-93 season. … With Washington’s loss at Houston on Friday, Miami clinched the Southeast Division for the second straight season. Riley intentionally downplayed winning the division title. “It was a ploy … a way to get them to think bigger,” Riley said. “It means something, but it’s not what we are playing for.” … Oakland Raiders WR Randy Moss brought 80 kids to the game. Moss was a high school teammate of Miami’s Jason Williams.