Cavaliers will face a different Heat team in rematch

MIAMI — What earlier this season looked like a major mismatch now seems … intriguing.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (42-18) — the defending NBA champions who have the best record in the Eastern Conference — invade AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday night to face the Miami Heat (28-34), a team that has made an incredible recovery from an awful start.

On Friday, the Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 135-130 as Kyrie Irving led Cleveland with 43 and James added 38.

“Ball movement,” James told ESPN when asked for the key to a victory that included 25-of-46 accuracy on 3-pointers. “We got a lot of our threes out of ball movement. The ball was finding guys who were open because they had energy behind it.”

As for Atlanta’s late-game push to close to within two points, James paid the Hawks respect, to a certain extent.

“They’re a very good team,” he said. “We just had to use our championship DNA to close the game out.”

Of course, some would argue that James didn’t get his “championship DNA” until he got to Miami, where he won his first two NBA titles.

More recently, on Dec. 9, the host Cavaliers easily beat Miami 114-84. James had 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in that game, nearly getting a triple-double. Kevin Love (28 points, 15 rebounds) and Irving (23 points) also put up big numbers.

But that was a different Heat team back then. The Heat was just 7-16 at that time, and they were on the way to the low point of their season at 11-30.

After that, though, the Heat reeled off 13 straight wins, the longest streak in the NBA this season and the biggest streak by any team with a losing record at the end of its run in the history of the league.

The Heat has won 17 of its past 21 games, and that includes a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

Perhaps the Heat got caught looking ahead to the Cavaliers, who are a different type of test from most any team not named the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.

Those are the only three teams in the NBA that have better records than the Cavaliers, who will also play host to the Heat on Monday night in the second game of a back-to-back, home-and-home series.

Certainly, the Heat will have to recover quickly from Friday’s disappointment in which they allowed the Magic to shoot 50 percent from the floor. Miami shot just 38.5 percent.

In addition, Orlando outscored Miami in the paint, 64-36, a stunning domination, especially for a Heat team that has center Hassan Whiteside in the middle.

Miami’s backcourt had a poor night overall, especially Dion Waiters, who was held to five points on 1-for-11 shooting. Point guard Goran Dragic shot 3-of-14, and reserve backcourt ace Tyler Johnson shot 4-of-14.

Add it up, and Miami’s top three guards shot 8-of-39 from the floor (20.5 percent).

That type of shooting resulted in Miami’s 12th loss this season to a sub-.500 team, including three to Orlando and two to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Miami’s last four losses are to teams with losing records.

“This season, we’ve never been able to get a handle on these guys (Orlando),” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “For three straight games, they’ve been able to out-speed us, out-hustle us, out-quick us and put a lot of points on the board.

“We had a slow, sluggish start to both halves. You have to give them credit. They kicked our butts.”

With the loss, Miami, which is trying to catch the idle Detroit Pistons for the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference, fell 1 1/2 games behind in that pursuit.

“Thankfully,” Spoelstra said, “we play (Saturday) night.

“I love all these emotions, going through it with these guys in this locker room, and I told them that after the game.

“For the next five weeks, it’s going to be incredibly competitive and very emotional.”