CLEVELAND — It could have been one of the biggest meltdowns ever. That it wasn’t made victory even sweeter.
The Cavaliers blew every single bit of a 23-point lead Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena, but never fell behind and stormed back to beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat 102-90 in front of a raucous sellout crowd.
“The atmosphere is always good here,” James said. “Even when I played here, the atmosphere was great. The fans are unbelievable. I’ve always said that. It was great for their team tonight.”
As James quickly congratulated Cleveland’s Daniel Gibson, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison, Baron Davis, J.J. Hickson and assistant coach Chris Jent after the final buzzer, 20,562 fans celebrated and roared their approval.
“I’m speechless,” Cavs owner and noted James basher Dan Gilbert said. “The fans have stood behind this team all year.”
The Cavs (15-58), who with the victory assured they won’t set a franchise record for fewest wins in a season, didn’t mind in the slightest that James, their former two-time league MVP who bolted for South Beach, put up a triple-double with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
Nor did they care that Dwyane Wade had 24 points or that Mike Bibby had 23 and made 7-of-11 3-point attempts.
All that mattered was atoning for their pitiful performance back on Dec. 2, when James made his first return to Cleveland and scored 24 of his 38 points in the third quarter as the Heat rolled to a 118-90 victory.
“The last time we played them here, we were embarrassed,” Parker said. “They took something from us. This was the night we wanted to get that back.”
On the verge of euphoria after going on an 18-0 run to take a 71-48 lead midway through the third period, the Cavs appeared headed for an even bigger embarrassment when the Heat (51-23) stormed back to tie the game at 83.
Right after the Cavs had gone up 23, Miami went on a 19-1 run in lightning-quick fashion. Christian Eyenga stopped it momentarily with a 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left to go in the third quarter, with James then throwing in a 50-footer that clearly came after the buzzer.
After a long delay and reviews of not only the in-house feed but also both teams’ television broadcasts, the officials ruled the clock had started too soon and counted James’ bucket, cutting Cleveland’s lead to 75-70.
The NBA later announced the officials erred and James’ basket should not have counted. Instead, the Heat should have been given the ball again with slightly less than 1.9 seconds left.
Fortunately for the Cavs, that mistake didn’t cost them the game. Not that they weren’t doing a pretty good job of trying to lose it themselves for a while.
Stymied when Miami went to a zone defense, the Cavs allowed the Heat to tie the game on a Bibby three with 7:02 to go. Bibby missed a 3-pointer on the next possession that would have given Miami its first lead, and Cleveland somehow managed to regroup and go on a 12-0 run.
“It says a lot about a lot of guys in that locker room,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said. “We could have given the game away, but we didn’t.”
Added Parker: “We responded. We were resilient. It makes the win all that more satisfying.”
There were a lot of heroes for the Cavs, but none were bigger than the previously poor-shooting Parker, who made 4-of-4 3-pointers en route to 20 points and seven rebounds, and much-maligned center Ryan Hollins, who played way better than his 13 points, three boards and three blocks indicate.
The long-limbed Hollins, who has a way of getting under the skin of opposing players, nearly came to blows with Wade in the first quarter and tangled with Juwan Howard in the second. He then made two great blocks against Chris Bosh (10 points, 5-for-14 shooting) in the second half.
“They came after me a little bit,” Hollins said. “If their team is focused on me to that extent, that helps us out.”
It didn’t hurt that James, who didn’t walk onto the floor when his name was announced in pregame introductions, also disappeared for most of the second and third quarters.
After pouring in 13 points in the first period, James didn’t score again until the 1:06 mark of the third. He finished 10-for-21 from the field, but made just 1-of-5 3-pointers and was only 6-for-10 at the line.
With a number of fans wearing black caps that said “LeBron Hater” and separate fans yelling out “Quitter” and “You suck” during the national anthem, the fans once again were venomous toward the Akron native.
When James threw a behind-the-back bounce pass that resulted in a turnover early in the game, the crowd roared. When Eyenga blocked his shot, the fans roared even louder — even though Gibson had already been called for a foul. When James’ trademark headband fell off after he was called for a foul against Hollins, the noise reached a crescendo.
“Our fans have been great all year,” said Hickson, who finished with 21 points and 12 boards. “Not just this game, but every game. They come out every game and support us, and I have to thank them for that. They deserve a win just as much as we do. They are definitely our sixth man.”
The Cavs shot a season-high .556 from the field (35-for-63) and made 9-of-17 3-pointers. They also outrebounded Miami 44-30 and held the Heat to .423 shooting (33-for-78). The Heat’s 30 boards were an opponent season low.
**In a game that featured numerous spurts, the Cavs went on a 10-run to go up 50-34 in the second period before Miami came right back with an 8-0 run. Davis then hit a three at the buzzer to put Cleveland up 53-42 at intermission.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or email@example.com.