By Rob Mahoney
Heat victories have come in all varieties during their historic winning streak. But this 24th consecutive victory, a 98-95 win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday in Cleveland, was downright cruel.
Cleveland led by 27 points at the 7:43 mark of the third quarter, at least in part because Miami spent the first two quarters oscillating between half-hearted execution and forced half-court action. Nothing was clicking for the Heat on either end, and it was clear from the start that Miami showed little concern for a lottery team missing three of its best players in Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters.
That disregard -- coupled with an uncharacteristic off night -- almost came to be Miami's undoing, until a second-half supernova completely shifted the margin and momentum. Once the Cavaliers peaked at 67-40, they were shaken out of rhythm by a thunderous Miami run, and outscored 58-28 the rest of the way by the raw power of the Heat's playing as the Heat so often do.
Over those final 19 minutes, a game's worth of errors were undone. The sloppy passing that plagued the Heat throughout their brutal first half vanished, as Miami committed just three turnovers while scoring 18 field goals and attempting 18 free throws down the stretch. The rebounding battle -- which had so decisively leaned in Cleveland's favor early -- flipped on a dime, as the Heat made up ground by picking up nine extra possessions via offensive rebounds.
That's where LeBron James was wonderfully effective. Though James is a terrific rebounder, he bested even his own lofty standard by grabbing 10 boards -- including six on the offensive end -- during the comeback. To put that number in perspective, the Cavaliers as a team totaled just 11 rebounds in that same stretch after dominating the offensive glass to help build their lead in the first place. They crumbled offensively without the benefit of so many extra scoring chances. Even at its best, Cleveland is a team that relies heavily on outworking its opponents, and once that hustle was mitigated by an engaged Heat team, the lead dissipated and a streak-breaking venture withered away.
It's unfair that Miami is this good, and that it could spot an opponent a 27-point lead before snatching it away. But that, more than anything, is the prevailing story of this season, as the Heat continue an improbable streak (they are now nine victories from matching the 1971-72 Lakers' record of 33 victories in a row) by exploiting every bit of their advantage over the rest of the field. On some nights, even a half-measure from Miami will be good enough for an easy, double-digit win, and on this occasion a quarter and a half of superior play was all it took to mount an incredible reversal of fortune and create a chance to keep the NBA's second-longest winning streak alive.
Dwyane Wade struggled with just 11 points on 11 shots, but James marched all the way to a triple-double (25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) to compensate. Miami gave up buckets to C.J. Miles (10 points, all in the first half), Tristan Thompson (18 points and eight rebounds) and Wayne Ellington (20 points, seven rebounds, four assists), but countered with a flurry of threes during a pivotal stretch and one of Mario Chalmers' (17 points, 3-of-6 three-pointers) better performances of the season.
Every minute of Miami's woe is met with an overwhelming response borne of honed talents and wise execution, good enough to top most every opponent and empirically so for the last 24. The Heat have beaten the league's best, rallied from deficits as substantial as this one and stand as convincing title favorites. All that's left for James, Wade, Chris Bosh and their teammates is the pursuit of history itself, and the impossible quest to break an unbreakable record.