The Heat needed this one.
After struggling through the entire month of March, the defending back-to-back NBA champions actually played like league royalty Friday at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Heat defeated the Pistons 110-78 and LeBron James recorded his first triple-double of the season with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in just 30 minutes of work. James had his boxscore stuffing statistical accomplishment by the end of the third quarter and watched from the bench alongside a slew of injured teammates in the final period.
“It has been very elusive this season,” James said of his triple-double. “And it’s always great to do it in a win. And for us to come out and play the way we did, and for me to be able to get that in a victory, that is special.”
The Heat (49-22) is now 8-8 in March with two games left in the month. And just when it appeared the Heat had given up on the top position in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers lost Friday to the Washington Wizards. The Heat now trails the Pacers by one game in the loss column with Indiana holding the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference if both teams finish the regular season with identical records.
“How many did they score?” asked James when informed that the Pacers lost. The Washington Wizards defeated Indiana 91-78.
“That’s just funny. Everyone loves playing us, but for us, we can’t worry about what Indiana is doing. We’ve got to continue to do what we do.”
It was James’ 37th triple-double of his career and he did with a quarter to spare. On Friday morning, the league’s back-to-back MVP altered his daily road routine with an early morning practice session at Oakland University. The extra workout apparently helped.
James had eight points, eight assists and six rebounds at halftime and his 10th rebound of the game with 1:58 left in the third quarter completed the triple-double. He had seven assists in the first quarter.
The Heat’s inspired effort came on a night three starters rested injuries and a fourth regular contributor, Ray Allen, was in Miami suffering from an illness.
Dwyane Wade missed the game with a strained hamstring and sore Achilles tendon. Mario Chalmers did not play after bruising his thigh against the Pacers and Greg Oden missed the game with a sore back.
The Heat’s piecemeal starting lineup featured James Jones, Toney Douglas and Udonis Haslem to go along with regulars James and Chris Bosh, and the group dominated. Douglas had nine points, five assists and five rebounds as the Heat’s starting point guard. Jones, playing for the first time since January, had 10 points and was 3 of 6 from three-point range. Haslem was an unstoppable force, going 8 of 11 from the field for 17 points. Haslem’s points total and field goals were both season highs and he also had five rebounds.
After the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra indicated Haslem had worked his way back into the team’s permanent rotation for the playoff push and beyond.
“He just has a way of when it really matters and you start to get ready for the playoffs, he has a way of kicking doors open,” Spoelstra said.
On Friday morning, the Heat held a shootaround at Battier’s high school to honor their beloved teammate, and at halftime of the Friday night’s game, Isiah Thomas himself called Battier an honorary “Bad Boy.” The 1989 NBA champion Detroit Pistons — known famously as the “Bad Boys” — were celebrated at center court at halftime.
“That was an all-time day,” Battier said. “It really was an all-time day. I have been nostalgic all day, and, first of all, just to see the ‘Bad Boys’ back together, that’s my childhood. They taught me the game of basketball. All the sharp elbows that I tend to give out every now and then, and the gritty plays, those are the guys who taught me everything.”
“So, it was a huge, huge thrill for me to be here, and I’ve know Isiah for a long time…so for him to call me an adopted ‘Bad Boy,’ that’s an all-time moment.”
With Wade and Chalmers on the bench, the Heat only committed nine turnovers, which the Pistons converted for 10 points. Led by James, the Heat had 31 assists. On Wednesday against the Pacers, the Heat turned it over 19 times for 26 points. Wade and James had six giveaways each against Indiana.
“Being on the road, you can’t turn the ball over,” James said. “And for us to have limited turnovers and have assists so high, man, it was a great game plan we were able to execute it.”