CLEVELAND (AP) — Miami’s winning streak was in danger of disappearing — in Cleveland, of all places.
But LeBron James wouldn’t give up.
“That guy right there doesn’t want to lose in this building,” teammate Dwayne Wade said, nodding toward James, who left many angry Cavaliers fans behind when he bolted for Miami as a free agent three years ago. “Not tonight.”
James scored 25 points as the Heat overcame a 27-point deficit in the third quarter and won their 24th straight game, 98-95 over the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night to extend the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.
The Heat are within nine games of matching the record of 33 consecutive wins held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Once believed to be untouchable, the mark is now within reach.
James and his teammates have insisted the record isn’t one of their goals, and for more than 30 minutes the defending champions seemed disinterested and on the verge of losing for the first time since Feb. 1. Miami trailed 67-40 with 7:44 left in the third quarter.
But behind the irrepressible James, who added 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 42 minutes, the Heat inched closer to history and matched the NBA’s biggest comeback this season, according to STATS.
“This was one of the most bizarre, unique days of my life with everything that happened,” said James, referring to a homecoming in which a fan ran onto the floor and the opening tip was delayed 35 minutes by a leaky scoreboard. “It also was one of the best comebacks I’ve ever been a part of.”
James had 14 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in the fourth as Miami rallied to win for the second game in a row. The Heat were down 17 points — 13 in the fourth quarter — and stormed back to beat Boston 105-103 on Monday and surpass the 2007-08 Houston Rockets for the second-longest streak in NBA history.
“I knew there was a lot of time, so we never panicked,” James said. “We were down 27 with 18 minutes left. That’s a lifetime in basketball.”
Although the Cavs were missing All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao — their top three scorers — they pushed Miami to the limit.
It wasn’t until James, playing his fourth game back in Cleveland since leaving, made two free throws with 4.7 seconds left that Miami could relax, but just a little. The Cavs had one last chance to tie it, but C.J. Miles was long with a 3-pointer in the final second, letting Miami off the hook.
Following the game, James stopped to sign a few autographs as he made his way to Miami’s locker room. This was much tougher than he and the Heat could have imagined. The win also completed a five-game road trip, dubbed “The Reunion Tour” by James because Miami visited Wade’s home in Milwaukee, Chris Bosh’s former team in Toronto and Ray Allen’s in Boston.
“The streak wasn’t on my mind, but us getting blown out was,” James said. “I was going to be the only guy to take an `L’ on the reunion tour.”
Mario Chalmers added 17 points and Wade had 11 for the Heat, who outscored the Cavs 30-18 in the fourth quarter and 64-40 in the second half.
Wayne Ellington had 20 points and Tristan Thompson 18 for Cleveland, which went from a stunning upset to blowing the biggest lead in a loss in franchise history.
“We knew it was coming,” Thompson said of the Heat’s comeback. “They were the NBA champions last season. They’re not going to lay down. Champions don’t lay down even when they’re down by 27. We knew they were going to make a push. Guys went out and made plays, so you have to give them credit.”
Down by nine to open the fourth, the Heat were up 95-86 with 3:02 left and seemed to have the Cavaliers on the ropes.
But Cleveland bounced back and closed to 96-95 on Thompson’s two free throws with 44 seconds to go. Wade then missed a jumper, but Ellington misfired on a step-back 23-footer with 5.2 seconds to go.
James was fouled and the reigning MVP, with a sellout crowd of 20,562 roaring, stepped to the line and dropped both free throws to make it 98-95.
Miles was contested on his final shot, and once it clanked off the rim, the Heat headed home with a chance to extend their streak to 25 on Friday against Detroit.
This game had a little of everything, including a fan running on the floor in the fourth quarter. The young man was wearing a T-shirt that said: “We Miss You, 2014 Come Back,” a reference to James’ possible free agency and return to Cleveland, where he played seven seasons.
James went out of his way and patted the fan on the head as security rushed him off the floor.
“He said he missed me and come back, please,” James said. “It happened once before in (Madison Square) Garden, so I wasn’t worried. There are metal detectors here, so we were OK. I embraced it.”
The start of the game was delayed because of a spill on the floor caused by condensation from a carbon dioxide container inside the scoreboard.
James scored eight straight points to open the fourth, hitting a 3-pointer to tie it 77-all. He then turned toward the crowd and delivered an icy stare, his way of saying, `OK, enough is enough.’
“When he made that one and turned to the crowd,” Wade said, “you knew it was coming.”
NOTES: Starting with the Cavs, Miami’s next 10 games are against opponents with a combined winning percentage of just .399. … The Heat play the Pistons and Charlotte at home before going to Orlando, Chicago, New Orleans and San Antonio. … It was the first time Miami overcame a 21-point halftime deficit to win. … The Cavs will wait a week before they evaluate Waiters, who has loose cartilage, and decide whether he needs surgery. Cleveland coach Byron Scott hopes his young guard comes back in the final month. “If he gets back, I’ll be thrilled to death,” Scott said. … Miami’s three wins over Cleveland this season have been by a total of nine points.