CLEVELAND — LeBron James started the game with a bang and finished it with a flurry of free throws.
James poured in 43 points against his former team Tuesday night as the Miami Heat defeated the shorthanded Cavaliers 100-96 in front of a sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena.
James, who finished 14-for-19 from the field, 6-for-8 from behind the arc and 9-for-13 at the line while adding six rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks in 43 minutes, scored an arena-record 25 points in the first quarter.
“On the road, we can’t wait around,” he said simply. “We have to start out with some energy.
“I felt a good rhythm,” he added. “I shot the ball well in warm-ups and was able to carry it over into the game. When I started the game off, I felt like I could have went for 50 or 60. You can’t really dictate what’s going to happen.”
On a night when the Cavs (26-42) were playing without Kyrie Irving and Luol Deng and Miami (46-19) was resting Dwyane Wade, James had a first quarter for the ages as the Heat defeated Cleveland for the 10th straight time and 13th time in 14 meetings since “The Decision.”
The 6-foot-8, 250-pounder made his first six shots of the period — four of them 3-pointers — and last four. His only miss in a 10-for-11 performance was a heat-check three just past the midpoint of the quarter.
In addition to five 3-pointers in the period, the small forward made two off-balance, step-back bank shots while going left, a layup, dunk and step-back jumper.
The 25 points broke The Q record of 23 in a period shared by James, Marcus Thornton, Allen Iverson and James Robinson.
“Oh, man, it was real tough,” said Alonzo Gee, who started for Deng and drew the assignment of defending James. “He got a lot of stuff in transition. He’s an All-Star. He was making shots.”
For good measure, James threw an off-balance, between-two-defenders, backward flip pass to Ray Allen for a wide-open 3-pointer as the Heat took a 37-25 lead after one.
To their credit, the Cavs battled back to lead in each of the final three periods, but James, who hadn’t scored in the final quarter, made six straight free throws in the final 1:06 to help the Heat hold on.
“That’s what makes LeBron unique in this league,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s just that in today’s age, there are players who would be looking for (scoring) numbers. With that kind of start, some people would be looking for 70. LeBron plays the game the right way.”
The Cavs got a stat-stuffing night from Dion Waiters, who started in place of Irving, but it wasn’t enough to keep them from falling six games behind Atlanta in the race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Waiters had a team-high 22 points, but it took 6-for-19 shooting from the field, including 1-for-6 from beyond the arc. Waiters also had four rebounds and a career-high 11 assists, but committed six of the Cavs’ 20 turnovers — they led to 26 points — and took some questionable shots down the stretch.
The second-year pro also got trapped near midcourt and was forced to call Cleveland’s last timeout with 1:27 left, but the offense actually ran better down the stretch without coach Mike Brown getting a chance to diagram plays.
Jarrett Jack (17 points, 4-of-6 3-pointers) hit two big threes in the final 15.7 seconds. The first brought the Cavs within three and the second made it a two-point game, but James responded with two free throws each time.
James and Chris Bosh (21 points) also combined for several big blocks in the final moments, though one by James appeared to be a foul. No call was made, but it led to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert tweeting, “That is beyond incredible. What a complete and total joke and tra.”
Gilbert didn’t finish his thought — travesty? — but Waiters also felt he was fouled.
“I didn’t get the call, so it’s on to the next one,” Waiters said of a Thursday home game against Oklahoma City. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Anderson Varejao added 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Cavs before fouling out in 26 minutes, while Gee (12), Spencer Hawes (11 points, 9 rebounds) and Tristan Thompson (10) all reached double figures in scoring for Cleveland.
It was a solid effort by the Cavs, but James was too much early and kept his team afloat late.
“His energy was outstanding,” Spoelstra said. “It set the tone for the game. Everyone knew he was ready to play.”
James, who didn’t attempt a 3-pointer while taking just three shots after halftime, had six points in each of the final three periods, but always was the most dominant player on the court.
“In the first quarter, he was comfortable,” Gee said. “In the second half, I tried to make him work a little more. But a player like that, he’s still going to find a way to score.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.