MIAMI — LeBron James finally has a game-winning shot for the Miami Heat. So who got credit for it?
That would be a coach of the Hornets.
No, not Monty Williams, coach of the New Orleans Hornets. Try Frank Walker Sr., who once headed the Summit Lake Community Center Hornets in Akron, Ohio.
James made a left-handed layup with 3.2 seconds left Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena to give the Heat a 97-96 victory over the Orlando Magic and extend their team-record winning streak to 16 games. James then took a trip down memory lane when asked about driving to the bucket and using his off hand.
“I give credit to my Little League coach, Frank Walker Sr.,” said James, paying homage to the guy who coached him when he was on his first basketball team in the fifth grade and whose family he had been living with that year when he had instability at home. “He made me learn how to make a left-handed layup when I was a kid and I first started out. He would not allow me to dribble the ball until I started making left-handed layups because at some point you’re going to need it.”
James needed it Wednesday after the Heat (45-14) had kicked away a 20-point lead to the lowly Magic (17-45) and were staring at being on the wrong end of one of the biggest regular-season upsets in recent history. The Heat had fallen behind by five before they were rescued by James, who had a game-high 26 points.
It was the first game-winning shot by James in the final five seconds in his three Miami seasons and first one overall since 2009. The last one also was against Orlando, with James drilling a dramatic 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 96-95 Cleveland win in Game 2 of that spring’s Eastern Conference finals.
The last time it had happened in the regular season was James hitting a jumper at the buzzer for a 106-105 win by the Cavaliers on Jan. 23, 2009 at Golden State.
“It’s been a while,” James said.
Of course, it shouldn’t have come to that. On Latin Night, with the Heat wearing jerseys that read “El Heat,” they were not exactly “en fuego” in the second half.
“We relaxed,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “(We) got a little complacent.”
Try a lot complacent. The Magic, who have lost 32 of their past 37 games, went on a 46-21 run after the Heat had led 60-40 early in the third quarter.
If it weren’t for some fortunate calls at the end, the Heat wouldn’t have kept their streak alive. Trailing 96-93, Magic forward Tobias Harris was called for charging into Heat forward Shane Battier on a play that could have gone either way. Then with 21 seconds left and Orlando up 96-95, Dwyane Wade blocked a shot by forward DeQuan Jones with 21 seconds left as the Magic looked for a foul.
“This is tough,” said Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn, whose Magic shot just 12 free throws to Miami’s 31 but quipped at least his team “got better” since the Heat had shot 35 in a 112-110 overtime win Jan. 1 at Orlando. “You’ve got guys who battled, who really wanted to win this game and deserved to win this game.”
At least the Magic got the rebound after Wade’s block. But Al Harrington missed a 3-pointer, setting the stage for the drama by James, who pulled down a board with 12.6 seconds left.
Actually, there was a delay before the action unfolded. Spoelstra had told the officials he only wanted a timeout if the Magic made their bucket and not if they missed. But a timeout was given to Miami after Harrington’s miss, which infuriated Spoelstra.
“It was miscommunication,” Spoelstra said. “The official apologized… But those things happen.”
James driving to the hoop against outmanned foes is something that happens a lot. But with the Heat down by three points, he had clanged 3-pointers with 1:16 and 1:08 left.
James said afterward he “settled” for those shots. He wasn’t going to do that again.
“I had no intentions of shooting another jumper,” James said.
He didn’t. After a timeout, James took the ball at Jones, an undrafted rookie from the University of Miami, and switched hands for the layup. With the Magic having no timeouts left, all they could get off after that was a desperation heave by Arron Afflalo that missed badly.
This is the third time in their past four home games Miami has blown a big lead and then barely beaten a lowly opponent. It had happened Feb. 24 when the Heat lost a 22-point advantage to beat Cleveland 109-105 and on Feb. 26 when they blew a 12-point lead before eventually defeating Sacramento 141-129 in double overtime.
“We had a lot of lapses on defense,” Miami center Chris Bosh said. “We just have to do a better job. We can’t put ourselves in that situation. Next time, we have to be more urgent about it.”
Bosh didn’t exactly have a banner night as Magic center Nikola Vucevic had 25 points and 21 rebounds to Bosh’s 17 and 10. Then again, it wasn’t as embarrassing as Bosh having been outrebounded 29-4 by Vucevic in the first meeting between the teams.
And it’s hard to complain too much about a team that now has tied for the 18th-longest winning streak in NBA history. Even if there have been some mediocre showings, the streak still has included some impressive wins at Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Chicago and New York.
“We hear about it,” said Wade, who added 24 points. “Obviously, it’s us and the (NHL’s) Blackhawks. You can’t turn on ESPN without hearing about it.”
The schedule is favorable for the Heat to become just the fifth NBA team to win 20 in a row. They have their next three at home, where they’re 27-3 this season. Then they’re at Philadelphia, a team they have dominated, next Wednesday.
If Heat players want to know about the rarefied air they soon could enter, they need only to talk to Battier. When he was with Houston in 2007-08, the Rockets won 22 straight games, the second-longest streak in NBA history following the Los Angeles Lakers’ epic 33-game run in 1971-72.
“I’ve won 22 in a row,” Battier quipped after the game about 16 still not being close to what his Rockets accomplished. “Like Mercury Morris (said), ‘Don’t call me when you’re on my block, call me when you’re on my front (porch).'”
Morris makes similar quips each time a team looks to threatening his 1972 Dolphins’ perfect mark of 17-0.
As for 17 straight, that’s the longest winning streak in the NBA this season, having been accomplished by the Los Angeles Clippers. The Heat will seek to tie that Friday against Philadelphia even if James doesn’t appear too excited about it.
“What we’re trying to do is bigger than the streak,” James said. “We’re trying to continue to build and win a (second straight) championship.”
If the Heat need another key left-handed layup by James to get that done, he’ll remember where it all started.