LeBron James and the Miami Heat extended their winning streak to 24 games, coming back from a 27-point deficit to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 98-95, at Quicken Loans Arena in one of the most incredible, bizarre and memorable NBA contests in memory.
The start of the game was delayed for nearly 40 minutes as a cooling agent for the pyrotechnics on the Cavs' scoreboard dripped onto the floor during warmups. But not even dousing the hardwood in fire retardant was enough to prevent the Heat from coming back to torch the host Cavaliers.
The Cavs used a 23-2 run in the second quarter to expand their advantage to as many as 22 points before halftime. In that fateful period, the Heat scored a total of 10 points and saw their halftime rebounding disadvantage widen to an incredible 27-12.
James committed four turnovers in the half and made just two of five shots.
But Shane Battier brought the Heat back in the third quarter, hitting three long-range bombs. And the King held court in the fourth, raining triples and finishing at the rim in a stunning final period that featured a scary stoppage when a fan ran onto the court right next to James.
The final result was nothing short of incredible, as the Heat improbably extended their streak by flipping the same switch that they've relied on all year.
James finished with a triple-double and after the dust had settled, the Cleveland fans were once again "Witnesses." This time, though, they watched helplessly as James and the Heat roared back to rip victory No. 24 from the jaws of defeat.
Mario Chalmers: B
Mario Chalmers got off to a fast start, dropping a pair of three-point shots and finding James for a breakaway dunk within the game's first five minutes.
From that point on, Chalmers continued to hit big shots and get to the line, providing a critical boost for the Heat as they roared back in the fourth period.
In the interest of fairness, Chalmers' four turnovers were a big part of Miami's mid-game lull, so much of his positive effect on the game has to be viewed in tandem with his head-scratching goofs.
Overall, though, the Heat's point guard finished with 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting and managed to contribute some key buckets, including a huge corner three in the fourth quarter. He wasn't perfect and some of his mistakes were egregious, but Chalmers helped out when it counted.
Dwyane Wade: C
Even though Dwyane Wade is enjoying his most efficient season ever, his status as "Robin" to James' "Batman" was never more clear than it was against the Cavaliers.
As the Heat struggled to dig out of their massive hole, Wade essentially disappeared, content to allow James to take the wheel during the comeback. His first field goal of the second half came with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
By that point, James and the rest of the Heat had already taken control of the game back from the impetuous Cavs.
There's no shame in stepping back and letting LBJ take charge, but it would have been nice to see the veteran Wade step in when his team needed him during Cleveland's first-half sprint.
On the night, Wade finished with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists on 4-of-11 shooting. He didn't have his best sidekick performance in this one, but it didn't hurt the Heat in the end—thanks to a truly heroic effort by James.
LeBron James: A
Even when things looked their bleakest, some still held out hope that James and the Heat would turn the game around.
Something tells me this is just LeBron James doing what he's good at: Giving the fans of Cleveland hope and then ripping it away.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 21, 2013
James' pair of huge three-point baskets and a putback completed a personal 8-0 run that brought the Heat all the way back from down 27, tying the game at 77 with 10:26 remaining in the fourth quarter. James stared menacingly into the crowd as Byron Scott called a timeout to stop the bleeding.
But it was too late for the Cavs to save themselves. James had exacted his revenge and ripped Cleveland's heart out all over again. His next three—his third of the period—gave the Heat their first lead since the score was 11-9 in the first quarter.
In another fourth-quarter sequence, James battled three Cavaliers on the offensive glass, relentlessly pursuing the ball and eventually drawing a foul. It was a remarkable effort.
Like his team, though, James has to find a way to summon enough urgency in the early going to avoid the necessity of a comeback like the one he engineered in Cleveland. Of course, as long as everyone knows the King can simply ascend to another level whenever he needs to, that stylistic change may not happen.
LBJ finished with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against his former team, showing once again that he sits head and shoulders above the rest of the league's stars.
Udonis Haslem: F
The beginning of Miami's third-quarter run coincided almost precisely with the moment Erik Spoelstra substituted Shane Battier into the lineup for Haslem at the 5:50 mark. From that point until the end of the period, the Heat trimmed Cleveland's advantage from 24 points to as few as six, ultimately heading into the final quarter trailing by nine.
That's a roundabout way of highlighting how unimportant Haslem has become to the Heat, especially when they play the fast-paced, run-and-gun offensive style that makes them most dangerous.
On the night, Haslem scored six points and was almost entirely responsible for Tristan Thompson's big effort, giving up position inside and failing to stay in front of the Cavs' young forward.
In other words, Haslem has become a power forward who actually makes the Heat weaker. Miami's final run in the fourth period, which occurred with Haslem on the bench for its entirety, drove home his just how little the Heat need him these days.
Chris Bosh: B-
Chris Bosh knocked down five of 10 shots and grabbed seven boards, but as has so often been the case this season, his failure to control the defensive glass nearly cost the Heat in the worst way.
Though he showed a marked uptick in effort on the boards in the second half, Bosh's weak rebounding work was a real contributor to Cleveland's first-half run.
It's hard to complain about a player who might very well be the NBA's deadliest mid-range weapon and is an integral part of the best team in the league, but there's no getting around Bosh's shortcomings in the paint.
At this point, though, it seems unlikely that he'll change his game. That might not matter against the Cavaliers—or any opponent in a single contest—but it's possible that over the course of a series, a savvy opponent will find a way to exploit Bosh's ineptitude underneath.
Shane Battier: A-
Battier's three triples in the third quarter were indispensable in Miami's blistering surge.
Though the Heat's sixth man finished with just 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting and failed to record a rebound or assist, his contribution during the game's turning point was immensely valuable. The veteran forward knew exactly what his team needed and came through at a crucial moment with a trio of fearless shots.
Though he might be (rightly) known as a pretty limited specialist, Battier's impact on the Heat was clear. His willingness to take (and knock down) huge shots is surpassed on the Heat only by the ultra-confident James.
As Miami continues its title defense amid a lengthy winning streak, Battier's smarts and guts will continue to be critical.
Bench Grade: B+
One of the only bright spots in a dismal first half, Chris Andersen played 10 energetic minutes and got to the line six times, which was half of the Heat's total as a team. After the break, though, he took a backseat to the rest of the Heat bench—Ray Allen in particular.
Allen scored 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, but like just about everyone else on the Heat, did all of his damage after halftime. In addition to his three second-half threes, Allen chipped in five huge steals to spur some Heat breakaways.
Rounding out the bench, the rarely useful Norris Cole was...rarely useful. He went scoreless on one shot and committed a foul in seven minutes.
Cole aside, Miami's bench played a big role in its improbable comeback win.