Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 98-79 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday night:
1. The Heat (40-35) inched closer to clinching a playoff spot and scored an impressive win over LeBron James in the process.
People will point to the Cavs having a night off on South Beach Monday – and perhaps having a little bit too much fun – as part of the reason they shot 36.5 percent and missed their first nine three-point attempts on a bad night from beyond the arc (4 of 26 overall), but the Heat played with the kind of defensive intensity it needed to – especially against James.
The Heat had hands everywhere James went. Dwyane Wade blocked one of his shots from behind in the first half, a signature moment that drew loud cheers from the crowd. Then, Wade did it again to James late in the fourth quarter on his way to a four block night.
“We were definitely going against a high-powered offensive team, so it was definitely going to take all of us and not just the guy guarding LeBron or not just the guys guarding Kevin [Love] in our game plan.,” said Wade of the Heat, who held the Cavs to a season-low in points scored (nine points below its previous worst) and 32 points below their season average (111.1).
“It was going to take all of us. We did a great job. It was one of our best defensive games since I’ve been here, for sure.”
It would take some things to happen for the Heat and Cavs to meet in the first round of the playoffs, but Tuesday’s performance by Miami left one to wonder how exciting a series that might turn out to be. Though James is 48-7 in his career in first round series and has won 21 first round games in a row, these Cavaliers aren’t nearly the same team that’s won the Eastern Conference each of the last three seasons.
Pending Tuesday night’s outcome between the Bucks and Clippers out in Los Angeles, the Heat could find itself back in seventh place in the East with a Milwaukee loss. Facing the ailing Celtics, seeded second in the East and with All-Star Kyrie Irving coming off minor knee surgery, is a more appealing first round matchup than entering the playoffs as the eighth seed and playing against a deeper, healthier Raptors team.
But the Heat, which closes out this homestand against Chicago, Brooklyn and Atlanta before going on the road to face the Hawks and Knicks (all lottery bound teams), still has an outside shot of passing both the Bucks and Wizards and grabbing the sixth seed, which could result in a first round series against the Cavaliers or 76ers. So it’s not completely out of the question the Heat and Cavs could meet in the playoffs.
Either way, Tuesday’s loss by Cleveland helped Philadelpia out in its quest to pass the Cavs in the standings. The Sixers play a weak schedule down the stretch and host Cleveland a week from Friday.
2. Can James Johnson emerge as a ‘LeBron stopper’ in the playoffs?
It’s a question some Heat fans are asking themselves after seeing the 6-8, 240-pound forward do a more than respectable job defending the four-time MVP. Physically Johnson has the strength and athleticism to match LeBron (6-8, 250) and if the Heat plays the kind of team defense it did Tuesday – lending a hand to guarding James throughout – it could make a seven-game series with the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions interesting.
Offensively, Johnson flashed his biggest gift Tuesday, getting to the rim for layups and dunks and finishing at a high percentage. He finished with 15 points (7 of 11 shooting), nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and three blocks in 33 minutes.
“JJ was very disciplined,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He didn’t reach, didn’t try to go for home run plays to stop him. He just used his size and agility to stay in front of him with other guys in the gaps. You can’t do it on your own so there were other guys really plugging those open lanes that LeBron usually takes advantage of. But JJ you have to be locked in and disciplined and in the right spot and have the athletic ability to slide to the next defender. That’s probably one of his most disciplined defensive games that he’s had.”
James finished with 18 points (7 of 18 shooting), six rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers in 38 minutes of action. He didn’t get much help at all from Kevin Love, who played only seven minutes after he was elbowed in the mouth early in the game.
“Miami’s one of the best defensive teams in this league and they do a great job of trying to get you out of your sets and push you further from your setup point offensively,” James said. “They’ve got a lot of tough guards that try to get up and ball and make you set up your offense up beyond where you like to start. When we had our looks we just couldn’t knock them down. We haven’t had an offensive game like that in a while and not having Kevin out there to stretch the floor for us, it definitely hurt us.”
3. LeBron’s losing skid continues at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Tuesday’s victory dropped James’ record to 4-13 all-time in Miami as a visitor – the worst record he has against any team in the league. James last won here Jan. 25, 2010, six months before he left Cleveland to form the Big 3 with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. James, who has sat out three games in Miami, is now 0-4 since heading back to Cleveland.
“From an opponent and then as one of their own, it’s a lot of memories here for sure,” James said of his visits to the AAA. “It’s been one of the best places for me to showcase my talent whether it’s as an opponent or as one of them. This building ain’t going away any time soon and neither am I.”
James, 33, debuted a new pair of shoes Tuesday – the Nike LeBron 15 “South Beach.” Was it a sign he might be interested in coming back to Miami or simply some good marketing? We’ll see.
Either way, his close friend, Wade, is now 15-15 against him head-to-head all-time. If this turns out to be their last meeting Wade will have gotten the last laugh.
Wade finished with 12 points, two rebounds, four assists, a steal and those four aforementioned blocks. He was also a team-best plus 22 for the game.
James said he “absolutely” thought about the potential of this being the last time he faced Wade and he reflected it in his postgame hug.
“The narrative since he came here is that he’s not quite sure what he’s going to do next year,” James said. “He’s going to assess everything and that was kind of like at the end of the game we kind of just had that moment where we’ve it’s been 15 years strong. As brothers, as teammates, as competitors, as teammates again, as competitors again, our brotherhood is beyond this game of basketball. You just don’t take for granted because you don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”
4. Jordan Mickey started at center for the first time since the third game of the season and did a respectable job filling in for the injured Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside.
Mickey, 23, came in having played in only 21 games this season and only four times since the All-Star break. Tuesday, he finished with seven points, five rebounds, a steal and a block in 21 minutes – the most he’s played in a game since Dec. 21. His ability to block shots and serve as a rim protector was badly needed and effective. The Cavs finished 20 of 39 in the paint and were outscored by the Heat there 48-40.
Mickey said he didn’t officially find out he was starting the game until 35 minutes before tip-off – even though he ran with the first team at shootaround.
“I love the kid,” Spoelstra said. “He’s the player of the game. It really could be split between Mickey and JJ. But everybody respects the work and the commitment that Jordan Mickey brings every single day and that is regardless of whether he’s playing or whether he’s not or whether it’s going his way or not. That’s a great quality to have that perseverance.
“The best indication of the type of guy is everybody was thrilled first when I announced that he was starting, everybody was really happy for him. And then after the game probably the whole locker room was most excited about Jordan’s play tonight. I didn’t even see his stats, they’re probably not really indicative at all to his impact.”
5. The Heat continues to play very well at home and has now won 10 of its last 11 here including seven in a row.
“I keep on going back to what Pat used to always say – prime the pump,” Spoelstra said. “You have these tough games and either you’re gaining something from it or you allow it to collapse your spirit. We had two tough losses on the road but our confidence grew from those two games which I know sounds probably strange, but our team feels like we’re getting better and we have been proving it at home. We haven’t been able to get over the hump on the road. At home these guys have been playing at a high level.”