HOUSTON -- The height of motivation for the Heat this season has been a handful of games against the best of the Western Conference.
A thriller Tuesday night in Houston qualified, but the Heat couldn’t keep pace with the well-rested Rockets at Toyota Center. The defending back-to-back champions began a three-game road trip with a 106-103 loss as Miami now moves down the road for its first game in San Antonio since the NBA Finals.
A three-pointer by James Harden followed by a layup from Dwight Howard gave the Rockets a 100-93 lead with 4:44 remaining. The Heat trailed by as many as 15 points in the third quarter, but tied the score 93-93 with 6:12 to play. The Heat tied the score three times midway through the final period, but could never take the lead.
The game appeared decided with less than a minute to play, but Michael Beasley made a clutch three-pointer to cut the Rockets’ lead to 106-103, and Harden tossed the ball away moments later to give the Heat one last shot.
LeBron James took the game’s last shot, but his three-pointer to tie was off the mark. James finished with 22 points one night after scoring a career-high and Heat franchise-record 61 points.
“I felt like I had a good look. It was just a little long,” James said.
With the Indiana Pacers losing to Golden State on Tuesday, a victory for the Heat would have pulled it even with the Pacers in the loss column. Instead, the Heat trails Indiana by two games in the Eastern Conference standings.
It was a painful final seconds for James, who was hit in the face inadvertently by Howard during Harden’s turnover. Both players jumped for Harden’s pass and collided in the air. James remained on the ground for a several seconds before walking to the Heat’s bench and preparing for the final play of the game.
“It feels like my nose is broken,” James joked after the game.
James went 9 of 18 from the field, 0 of 3 from three-point range and 4 of 6 from the free-throw line. He had six assists, but just one rebound. Before the game, James acknowledged being road weary from the Heat’s home-away back-to-back schedule.
After months of buildup, there wasn’t much to the head-to-head matchup between Dwyane Wade and Harden. Wade had used comments made by Kevin Durant about Harden and Wade as motivation throughout the season, but that background didn’t materialize into anything compelling on the court.
Before the season, Durant said Harden had moved ahead of Wade on the list of the NBA’s best shooting guards. Wade took the opinion as a slight, but he seemed more annoyed by the defense of Houston guard Patrick Beverley on Tuesday. Wade finished with 24 points, going 8 of 15 from the field. Harden had 21 points, making 9 of 15 attempts.
Before the game, Wade said it would “take time” for Harden to take his game to the next level.
The Heat ran off an 11-2 run to begin the fourth quarter before Beasley cut the Rockets’ lead to 88-87 with a three-pointer. Wade tied the score with a jumper with 6:12 to play, but the Rockets built a nine-point lead down the stretch.
A layup by Beverley with 2:37 gave the Rockets (41-19) a 104-95 lead. Beverley, a former draft-day addition by the Heat, finished with 19 points, going 5 of 8 from three-point range. Howard led the Rockets with 22 points and 16 rebounds.
The Heat cut Beverley before the 2010 season and Beverley, it seems, has used that decision as motivation ever since. He had plenty to say to the Heat’s bench during the first half. After the halftime buzzer, Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem traded words with Beverley as the two players walked off the court.
“I was just giving him a hard time,” Haslem said. “Nothing serious. I just told him to quite talking crap and looking over at our bench.
“We’re cool off the court, but in between the lines, I don’t like it. When you play against a team that you feel like you should have been there, or they made a mistake by letting you go, you try to prove something.”
The Heat went 7 of 27 from three-point range and shot 47.5 percent from the field. Houston won the rebounding battle 46-33.
“We were getting stops, but we couldn’t clean the glass,” James said. “It happens sometimes, but we had our chances.”