LeBron James stood before the booing, inflamed crowd, and snarled right back.
Moments early, he had just drained the Heat’s sixth three-pointer in less than six minutes of basketball to tie the Cavaliers at 77-77. In doing so, the Heat erased a 27-point deficit on the road in nine minutes and 16 seconds.
That span between the third and fourth quarters at Cleveland’s anger-addled Quicken Loans Arena was a run of brilliance even James himself would later reflect upon with reverence and respect. No passage of time and space will degrade that memory.
“This was one of the most bizarre and unique days of my life,” James said after the Heat’s 98-95 victory, the team’s 24th consecutive win.
Two days earlier, the Heat trailed by 17 points in Boston but charged back to win at TD Garden for the first time during the regular season since 2007.
The winning streak also includes a 16-point comeback against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. If the streak has taught the Heat anything in preparation for the playoffs, it is that no deficit, no matter how large, is insurmountable.
“I think no matter what with this team — no matter if we’re up 17 or down 17 — we’re confident that we can come back in the ball game,” Dwyane Wade said. “That’s a big difference when you’re out there playing — when you know ‘all we’ve got to do is this; all we’ve got to do is that’ — we can get our way back in a game.”
James and his teammates coined their latest five-game road trip the “reunion tour.” Three of the five games reunited one of the Heat’s players with their old teams and towns. Chris Bosh was met with boos in Toronto, Ray Allen returned to Boston and, finally, the road trip ended in James’ old haunts of Cleveland.
It was there, with 10:28 left in the fourth quarter against the Cavaliers, that James turned to face his old fans after that soul crushing three-pointer. Cleveland coach Byron Scott had just called a timeout in an attempt to flank the Heat’s oncoming wrath.
James stared down the masses and, pulling the mouth guard from his gladiatorial grin not unlike a warrior removing his helm during a break in the battle, glowered and screamed and beat his chest.
“I didn’t want to be the only guy to take a ‘L’ on the reunion tour,” James said. “So I had to dig down.”
And show out.
James had but six points in the game’s first two quarters and didn’t score a field goal in the second half until 4:45 remained in the third period. It took a second effort — a tip-in off of his own miss — just to get those points to drop. And yet James finished the game with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists for the 36th triple-double of this career.
It wasn’t until Shane Battier and Ray Allen combined to score four three-pointers to end the third quarter that James collected himself and finished off the comeback.
After a free throw by Chris Andersen that cut Cleveland’s lead to 77-69 to begin the fourth quarter, James scored 11 consecutive points — three three-pointers and a layup — in 96 seconds.
“Once Shane made those two threes, we were kind of like, this is where it gets fun,” Wade said. “We know we can come back from a deficit.”
Here’s the best thing about a historical winning streak in the middle of March: A meeting between the 22-win Cavaliers and 53-win Heat, two teams separated by 31 1/2 games in the standings, has the potential to deliver one of the more memorable regular-season games of the season.
According to ESPN, the Heat’s comeback against the Cavaliers was just the sixth time in the past 15 years that a team had come back from down 27 points in the second half to win a game. Seven teams in the NBA — Suns, Hornets, Timberwolves, Pistons, Magic, Bobcats and Cavaliers — now have fewer wins on the season than the Heat has during its streak.
“What are we at? Twenty-four?” Wade asked jokingly after Wednesday’s improbable victory. “You kind of lose count. It’s awesome to be in this position.”