PHOENIX — The most compelling feature of Saturday night’s visit from the Heat was a tricky variable we can refer to as the Miami fever.
Checking in with the most important head and tummy aches in town was superstar gate attraction LeBron James. And, thanks to his Twitter verification, we soon realized the Heat’s date with the Suns might be a little dicey.
Would Miami — already working without Dwyane Wade (sprained foot) — be forced to take on the plucky Suns without LeBron, too? As handicaps go, that would have been a bit like attempting to golf with a broom stick.
“Hate feeling like this,” tweeted James, whose tweet was accompanied by a photo of the 2012 NBA Finals MVP looking like a guy auditioning for a Nyquil commercial. “The bug is going around.”
Well, one thing already buggin’ the Heat was a raging epidemic of mediocre play away from home. Through 10 games, Miami was perfect at home and an uninspiring 3-3 on the road. But after losing to the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Heat had rallied to take down the Nuggets in Denver on Thursday night.
“Sometimes you have to relearn how to win,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said a few minutes after his team outlasted the Suns for a 97-88 end-of-road-trip victory.
The relearning process also requires LeBron having enough energy to suit up and make enough plays to help your team win. That’s what he did here, although 20 shots were required for James to reach 21 points.
“It takes a lot for me not to play and not be out there with my teammates,” James said. “I didn’t have much energy, but I wanted to be out there with my guys and I was able to make a couple of plays that helped us win.”
Fortunately for Miami (8-3), the guys included Chris Bosh, who finished with game highs in points (24) and rebounds (9).
The Heat did make things a bit harder than necessary against a usually hospitable foe.
With the future of Hostess in doubt, the Suns may require a new sponsor for their Twinkie defense. But even though Miami managed to convert an impressive 53.5 percent of its field-goal attempts — including LeBron’s 8 of 20 — Phoenix showed enough pluck to force 19 turnovers. Nine of those occurred in the opening quarter, a period that’s been so unkind to the Suns that many observers are wondering if it’s their interpretation of a rope-a-dope strategy.
Despite not scoring until Luis Scola nailed a free throw at the 7:46 mark in the first quarter, the Suns managed to play the Heat to a 23-23 deadlock after the first 12 minutes.
James was matched against Phoenix forward Michael Beasley during that stretch. But while most witnesses expected Beasley to stay far enough away from LeBron to avoid catching any germs, James spent most of the quarter whipping the ball around to his teammates.
With four minutes left in the first, he left the game and returned to the visitors’ locker room for some fluids.
“We had to play it by ear, and with as much energy as I had, I just had to come out and get a rest,” he said.
Both teams traded salvos as the evening progressed, the Heat claiming a biggest lead of 15 in the third after the Suns had gone up by 9 in the second.
The drama was kicked up a notch in the fourth quarter when Phoenix rallied and James found himself matched against Suns defensive bruiser P.J. Tucker. Tucker, listed at 6-foot-6 and 224 pounds, probably didn’t have both feet on the scale at the time.
Anyway, with LeBron looking reasonably mortal and Tucker looking a bit like an outside linebacker, the 6-8 James had difficulty gaining low-post traction in isolation efforts. He was only 3 of 9 in the fourth, but that third make was a driving layup over Phoenix center Marcin Gortat that gave Miami a 94-88 lead with 1:06 to play.
“We appreciate him even going and playing tonight and give us his presence,” Spoelstra said of James. “It’s another gutty win, and we showed some character.”
The Heat finished the trip at 4-2 and will return to duty in Miami for the first time since Nov. 5.
“It’s been a good trip,” James said. “We played some good basketball and some not-so-good basketball, but it was good to end the trip the right way, and now we’re going back home.”