The earliest Miami and Chicago could meet again is Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Good thing. The tempers could use a little time to cool down. And after a game filled with shoves and takedowns, the race for the No. 1 seed in the East is still going strong.
LeBron James had 27 points and 11 rebounds, Dwyane Wade scored 18 points and Miami tightened up the race in the East by beating the Bulls 83-72 on Thursday night in a scuffle-filled win that pulled the Heat within 1 1/2 games of Chicago in the conference standings.
“This is what the postseason is all about,” James said. “Both teams struggling to score offensively, and defensively, two very good defensive teams. It’s a possession game. That’s what happens in the postseason. The game slows down. Not many fast-break points. You’ve got to work for every attempt, work for every shot.”
Mario Chalmers scored 16 points and Udonis Haslem grabbed 10 rebounds for Miami, which held the Bulls to a season-low point total. The Bulls had been 23-0 this season when holding teams to 86 points or less.
John Lucas scored 16 points for Chicago, which was again without reigning MVP Derrick Rose because of injuries. Joakim Noah had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Luol Deng added 11 points and Carlos Boozer had 10 for the Bulls, who split four games with Miami this season and could have clinched the top spot in the East with a win on Thursday.
“We wanted it bad, but they wanted it more,” Noah said. “That can’t happen.”
The teams combined for four individual technical fouls, two flagrant fouls and Miami reserve James Jones was ejected.
But above all else, Miami decided this one with defense. The Bulls went up 21-20 on a layup by Deng with 3:36 left in the first quarter, making them 10 of 14 from the field at that point. They shot 15 for 56 – 27 percent – the rest of the way.
Chicago (47-16) has games with Dallas, Indiana and Cleveland left, while Miami (45-17) still has matchups with Washington (twice), Houston and Boston.
Miami won despite playing without Chris Bosh, sidelined for the second straight night to rest minor bumps and bruises.
“This season’s been a long, short year,” Wade said. “But this is the time of the year we all love and enjoy.”
In case anyone forgot that the Heat and Bulls don’t particularly care for one another, the refresher courses came often in this one.
The first real salvo came with 6:05 left in the first half, when Jones was ejected after being assessed a flagrant-2 for excessive contact against Noah while trying for a rebound. Jones stretched out both arms to move Noah out of the way, making contact around the head.
By the end of the game, that play seemed like a love tap.
“Every time we play them that’s how it’s going to be,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You have to have the mental toughness to get through all of that.”
Wade and Chicago guard Richard Hamilton – rivals for years – raised the level of angst a few more notches early in the third quarter.
Hamilton led with his elbow and shoulder to create some space, and Wade took exception – so he delivered an elbow and shoulder back, sending the Bulls’ guard sprawling to the court. The jousting then turned verbal, enough to merit a technical foul for each, plus a flagrant-1 on Wade.
“Two people that are trying to out-will each other and fight to help their team win,” Hamilton said.
And then things really got hot a few minutes later, not long after James was pulled down under the basket. James set a screen to free Chalmers from some pressure and was run into by Lucas, who gives up 9 inches and 85 pounds to the two-time NBA MVP. Predictably, Lucas went flying. Even more predictably, Lucas – who was leapfrogged for a dunk by James in Chicago’s first trip to Miami this season – got angry.
“I knew I had him,” James said.
After Deng fouled Chalmers to stop the play, and reopened a cut over his own left eye in the process, Lucas ran at James and the other eight players on the court at the time quickly converged on the area. It took referees about 5 minutes to sort out the mess, which only resulted in a personal foul on Deng and technicals on Lucas and James (who, upon hearing his name announced, shouted, “For what?).
James shrugged off the next hit, a hard foul by Chicago’s Omer Asik about a half-minute later, converting a three-point play in the process.
“It was a physical, competitive game against two teams that defend,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That tends to lead to a little bit more passion. And nobody was really backing down.”
Looking ahead to the prospect of facing the Trail Blazers without Chris Bosh, Heat coach Eric Spoelstra told LeBron James he was going to need a “Magic Johnson-type” night from him.
The Miami star scored 38 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and added six assists and five steals, to lead Heat to a 107-93 victory in Portland on Thursday night.
It was the ninth straight win for the Heat, who at 28-7 are off to their best 35-game start in franchise history.
Dwyane Wade added 33 points and 10 assists for the Heat in their first game since the All-Star break. Miami hadn’t played since a 102-88 victory at home over the New York Knicks last Thursday.
The Heat were without Bosh because of a death in his family. The All-Star was also expected to miss Friday night’s game at Utah, but it is not yet known whether he will play Sunday when Miami visits the Los Angeles Lakers.
Spoelstra said he approached James at shootaround, saying he needed a little bit of everything from his star.
“Really, it was as simple as this: `We need a Magic Johnson-type, not necessarily performance, but awareness,’” Spoelstra said. “Man, he really took the challenge. It’s his ability to do all these different things in the course of one game.”
James said he, in turn, told his teammates that he was going to guard everyone.
“We had a big piece of our team out, so I definitely had to step up my game to bring home this win,” he said.
LaMarcus Aldridge had 20 points for the Blazers, who were coming off a 104-95 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night. Portland (18-18) has lost eight of its last 12 games.
It was never much of a contest, and the Blazers trailed by as many as 25.
Aldridge, coming off his first All-Star appearance, was clearly frustrated.
“I’m at the point where we can’t keep talking about what we need to do,” he said. “We have to go out and do it.”
Before the game, the Blazers activated center Joel Przybilla, who was signed by the team earlier this week.
Przybilla, who spent more than six seasons in Portland before he was traded to Charlotte last season, has not played since last March. An 11-year NBA veteran, the 7-foot-1 center finished with four points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in 19 minutes.
A fan favorite, he was treated to a standing ovation by the Rose Garden crowd.
“Miami is on a mission. They are focused on winning a championship,” Przybilla said afterward. “And we want to get where they are, we want to get to the level they’re at.”
The Blazers jumped out to an early 14-6 lead, but the Heat came back to tie it on Wade’s lob pass to James for the dunk. James and Wade combined for all of Miami’s points to that point.
The Heat extended the lead to 30-21 on Mario Chalmers‘ jumper. They kept the Blazers at bay the rest of the half, going up 45-34 on Udonis Haslem‘s 15-foot jumper before taking a 60-42 lead into the break. James and Wade accounted for 41 of the team’s points.
The second half was more of the same. James went to the bench in the fourth quarter with the Heat still holding a sizable lead. But the Blazers chipped away a bit, coming to within 91-78 on Wesley Matthews‘ reverse layup.
James’ break was brief and the Blazers got as close as 95-85 on Nicolas Batum‘s 3-pointer with 4:35 left. James answered on the other end with a 3-pointer of his own.
James has scored 30 or more points in 15 games this season. Wade has scored at least 20 points in 10 straight games.
Last season, James scored 44 points against the Blazers, a record-high for an opponent at the Rose Garden, in a 107-100 overtime victory for the Heat. The road team has won the last five games in the series.
Blazers coach Nate McMillan said he was proud that his team didn’t “fold up the tent,” when it was clear they weren’t going to win.
“I don’t think our guys did that tonight. They kept scrapping,” he said. “We had a slow second quarter. That was the big quarter for us. But for the most part, I thought we kept competing.”
Notes: Spoelstra was selected as the NBA’s Eastern Conference coach of the month on Thursday after leading Miami to a league-best 11-2 record in February. It’s the third time he has earned the honor. … Former Blazer Scottie Pippen was at the game. … Batum cut his lip in the second half but returned. … The game was the only meeting between the Heat and the Blazers this season. … Portland placed C-F Kurt Thomas on the inactive list because of a concussion he sustained the night before in Portland’s loss at Denver. … It was Miami’s fifth straight win on the road.
His latest homecoming over and the hatred subsided, LeBron James had more to do.
He greeted a fans standing behind the bench and personally delivered his headband to a young admirer before heading to the locker room. He left the floor he once owned, skipping down a carpeted runway and slapping outstretched hands with every step.
It was time to leave for his new home.
It was time to go back to Miami and run down an NBA title.
James scored 28 points in his third game back in Cleveland as a visitor, Dwyane Wade added 22 and the Heat concluded a six-game road trip with their fifth straight win, 111-87 over the Cavaliers, who seemed intimidated by Miami’s mere presence.
Booed loudly every time he touched the ball by fans who haven’t forgiven him for leaving two years ago, James scored 16 in the third quarter when the Heat opened a 34-point lead. He added four dunks, three 3-pointers, five rebounds, five assists and rested the entire fourth quarter.
Miami has won eight of nine, and went 5-1 on its trip, winning by an average of 18.8 points.
“The way we won these last five games was very impressive,” James said. “We went on the road and won by double digits in each of those games and in some hostile environments. It was definitely a big road trip for us, six games in 10 days. We took care of business.”
Cleveland coach Byron Scott was disturbed by a loss in which his team fell behind by 23 in the first quarter and never recovered.
“We looked like we were frightened,” Scott said. “I said at halftime, `It boggles my mind that you are scared of another man.’”
That would be James, who toyed with the Cavs and silenced a sell-out crowd that came to vent again at a player who thrilled them for seven seasons.
Other than pregame introductions, James was the one who made more noise.
“He’s been playing at an MVP level all season,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. “He’s arguably playing the best ball of his career. He’s playing as well as anyone in the league.”
The Heat ended their trip with a devastating performance at both ends over the Cavs, who had played them tough in two previous losses this season.
Miami led 11-0, 21-2, 29-8 and 35-14 in the first quarter.
The Cavaliers never had a chance.
On the trip, the Heat also won three games in three nights, becoming the first team since the 1979-80 Phoenix Suns to accomplish that three-peat. And with Tuesday’s 15-point win at Indiana, the Heat also became the first team since Milwaukee in 1970 to win three consecutive road games by 10 points or more.
The Bucks won the NBA title that year. The Heat could be on their way to one of their own.
James had spent the past two days staying at his mansion in nearby Bath, Ohio, a perk he enjoyed and a stay that made him a little nostalgic.
On Thursday, James expressed the possibility of returning to the Cavs before his career is over. That’s years down the road. His immediate plans are to win championships with the Heat.
With Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert sitting courtside, James and the Heat wasted no time in opening their huge lead.
Miami scored the game’s first 11 points and pushed its lead to 25-5 when James grabbed a lob and delivered a vicious one-handed slam, an early punctuation mark. James and Mario Chalmers hit consecutive 3-pointers later in the quarter as the Heat opened a 21-point lead after one.
This wasn’t what Scott had in mind. One of his assistants had written on the dry-erase board in Cleveland’s locker room the message: “Hit First.”
The Heat landed the initial shot and kept `em coming.
They pushed their lead to 27 on a 3-pointer by Wade and Miami went 8 of 12 from long range in opening a 63-38 lead.
In the third, James went on a personal 7-0 run he started with a pair of free throws. He followed that with a thunderous dunk and capped it with a 3-pointer. After the ball swished through the net, James headed down court nodding to fans as if to say, “Remember me?”
“We took the crowd right out of it,” James said. “That was big. It was a good way to start the game.”
This was James’ third visit to Cleveland with the Heat, and as usual, it turned in to more than just a game.
James touched some nerves in Northeast Ohio and South Florida on Thursday when he said he could envision a return to the Cavs at some point.
“I think it would be great,” he said. “It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. … And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”
Those remarks didn’t sit well with some Miami fans, but James didn’t back off his comments Friday. However, he did clarify that he is committed to the Heat.
“I love the fans of Miami. I’m here,” said James, who can opt out of his contract after the 2014 season. “The question was asked of me, could I see myself playing back here. I said yeah, in the sense of I don’t know what my future holds and I don’t want to take that out.
“I’ve got everything thing invested with this team. I’m looking forward to the years to come.”
But according to a report from Yahoo! Sports, James has been using messengers to relay to Gilbert that he wants to return to Cleveland in three years.
James was asked to comment on the report.
“Not true, not true at all,” he said.
That’s all conjecture.
This is fact: He and Heat look unstoppable.
NOTES: James improve to 6-1 against the Cavs, averaging 25.7 points. … Cavs G Daniel Gibson sat out with a sprained left ankle but could be back Sunday against Sacramento. … Spoelstra had high praise for Cleveland’s young squad. “The future looks very bright for their organization and the future could be now,” said Spoelstra. “They have a lot of young talent.” … Cavs C Semih Erden left with a bruised left wrist in the third quarter and didn’t return.
The Heat raced to a 22-point lead by halftime and made a big statement in the Southeast Division against the second-place Hawks, turning a supposed showdown into nothing more than a showcase for Miami’s trio of stars.
“We couldn’t script it (any) better,” James said.
By halftime, Wade had 21 points. James was rolling along with 14 points and nine rebounds. Bosh had already put a double-double in the books with 10 points and 10 rebounds. The Heat went to the locker room with a commanding 63-41 advantage, the Hawks having surrendered their most points in a half this season.
That was quite a contrast from the first two meetings between the division rivals. Atlanta pulled off a stunning 100-92 win in Miami on Jan. 2, while the Heat bounced back three days later on the Hawks’ home court for a 116-109 victory in triple overtime.
James and Wade missed that second meeting, but Bosh carried the load with 33 points and 14 rebounds.
He had plenty of help in this one.
“You just have to give credit to the team effort on the defensive end,” Bosh said. “Everybody did their job, put bodies on guys. We just went up in traffic, got it with two hands. Just fundamental basketball.”
Miami won for the 10th time in its last 12 games, leading by as many as 32 before both coaches cleared their benches.
“When we play our best basketball, we can beat anybody,” James said. “You have to do the dirty work. You have to defend.”
Bosh finished with 14 points, complementing his strong work on the boards. James was active in the lane, as well, grabbing 13 rebounds, and he still found time to dole out six assists, too. Wade had a couple of steals and blocked a shot as the Heat totally clamped down on the Hawks, who shot just 39 percent and were outrebounded 52-38.
“They came out with an aggression,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “Against a team like this, you can’t fall prey into being seduced into taking jump shots. You have to get to the basket, and you have to get to the free-throw line. In the first half, we did not do that.”
The Hawks starters – four of whom were averaging in double figures – combined for just 40 points, led by Joe Johnson with 12. Willie Green actually led with 17 points, the reserves getting plenty of playing time with the game out of hand. Josh Smith had six points before the game was 3 minutes old. He had only one more basket the rest of the way.
“It almost seemed like they wanted it (more) than we did,” Johnson said.
Atlanta lost for the fourth time in its last five home games, the average margin in those defeats nearly 15 points. Even more troubling, Atlanta has fallen behind by at least 20 points in all four losses.
“I don’t know if it was a play they made or what, but it just baffles me,” Johnson said. “We’re sitting here in this locker room talking a good game and we go out there claiming we’re ready to play. Then we get out on the court and it’s like we haven’t even talked about the game plan. It hurts.”
Atlanta actually led 13-8 in the early going, but this one got away from the Hawks in a hurry. Miami ripped off nine straight points to take control, including a soaring dunk by James off a pass from Wade that would be a telling sign of things to come.
The Hawks failed to score over the final 4:30 of the first quarter, missing their last seven shots. Miami closed the period on an 11-0 run for a 30-18 lead, and it could’ve been even worse – James zipped a pass to Udonis Haslem under the basket, but he missed the layup just before the buzzer as James punched at the air in frustration.
That was about the only lowlight for the Heat. James kept his foot on the pedal at the start of the second quarter, tipping in his own miss and knocking down two free throws to make it a 16-point game. The Hawks got a brief spark off the bench from Green, whose 3-pointer cut the deficit to 36-29 with about 7 1/2 minutes remaining the in the half.
That was as close as the Hawks would get. Miami outscored the home team 27-12 the rest of the period, not shooting all that well but dominating the boards. The Heat closed the half with a staggering 31-13 rebounding edge.
Johnson didn’t have any rebounds, a glaring shortcoming on a team missing All-Star center Al Horford.
“I take that on me personally,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to get in there and help the bigs. I’m doing a poor job.”
Notes: Hawks C Jason Collins, out with a strained left elbow, will be evaluated Wednesday while the team is in Los Angeles. He said the movement in his arm is OK, but he’ll have to build up the strength before he can return to the court. … The Heat put five players in double figures. Mario Chalmers scored 15 and Norris Cole had 10. … Atlanta’s record dropped to 5-9 against teams that are above .500. … Miami’s Dexter Pittman sustained a bruised left shoulder in a collision with Atlanta’s Erick Dampier.
LeBron James took a hard foul and clearly was not happy. So the next time he saw the ball, he made sure no Toronto player could reach him.
James’ steal and dunk with just more than two minutes left gave Miami some breathing room, and the Heat held on to defeat the Toronto Raptors 95-89 on Sunday. James finished with 30 points and Dwyane Wade added 25 for the Heat (18-6), who won for the 10th time in its last 12 games and moved within one game of Chicago (20-6) for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
“We stuck with our principles,” James said. “And that’s to defend.”
Chris Bosh scored 12 points against his former team, which saw a 15-point edge trimmed to three in the final minutes but never surrendered the lead. Mario Chalmers added 11 for Miami.
“I liked our disposition,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “I liked the way we approached it. I liked the way we competed.”
Kleiza’s 3-pointer with just under five minutes left got Toronto within eight, and another 3 from Bayless as the shot clock expired on the next Raptors’ possession cut the Miami lead to 85-80 – the closest the game had been since early in the third quarter.
Bayless scored again to get the Raptors within three and cap a 12-0 Toronto run. And after Bosh missed a fadeaway from the right baseline, Bayless tried a 3-pointer to tie. It bounced off, and with the game in the balance, James went to work.
He was fouled by James Johnson and made two free throws with 2:20 left, not before letting anyone around him know he wasn’t pleased with the physicality of the play. The next time James touched the ball, he didn’t give the Raptors a chance to foul him – his steal and two-handed slam with 2:07 left gave Miami an 89-82 edge and all but ensured the win.
“Good back-to-back plays for our team and I was happy I was able to make them,” James said.
James – who leads the NBA in first-quarter scoring this season (9.1 points a game) – got off to another big start, making his first five shots and scoring 12 points in the opening quarter. He’s now shooting just under 60 percent in first quarters this season.
While scoring wasn’t an issue, the Heat were far from in the clear.
Casey told the Raptors that establishing pace and limiting turnovers – especially early – would be big keys. Seemed like his team got the message: The Raptors matched a season-high with 27 points in the first quarter, and turned the ball over only five times in the first half. That, combined with DeRozan tying his season best with 16 points in the opening two quarters, kept the Raptors close.
“It just shows that we can compete with anybody,” DeRozan said.
Miami’s lead was only 53-48 at the break, and that was even after James and Wade combined to score 22 points in the opening quarter on 8 for 9 shooting.
“We knew it was going to be one of those grind-out kind of games,” Wade said. “We understand that a lot of teams do that when they play the Heat – come out on fire.”
In the third quarter, the Heat finally took control – not surprisingly, when the defense picked up a notch.
Toronto missed all but one of its shots over a seven-minute stretch of the third, a span where Miami started with a 55-54 lead and increased it 73-57. Chalmers hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the 18-3 run, James made a fadeaway with 3:27 to play in the period to close the flurry.
“Our energy was good,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Even throughout the game, I didn’t have a problem with the energy. … It was more of a real concentration and a discipline toward the end of the (shot) clock. And that’s something we’ll have to continue to get better at.”
And, just as Casey feared, turnovers proved decisive. Toronto committed eight in the third, which Miami turned into nine points. Miami gave the ball away only twice in the third, and the Raptors didn’t score on either.
“Next time we’ve got to come out and make the plays and close,” Bayless said.
Notes: It was the second straight year Miami played at home on Super Bowl Sunday. The Heat beat the Clippers last year in a game that started at noon and with James half-seriously asking officials to speed things along. … Miami has beaten the Raptors six straight times. … It was Raptors C Jamaal Magloire‘s first time visiting Miami as an opponent since March 2008. The Toronto native had spent the past three seasons with the Heat and remains close to several former teammates. “He was about as pure as anybody we have ever had as a role player,” Spoelstra said.