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Norris Cole steals the night as depleted Miami Heat ekes out win over Cavaliers

It was an irrelevant game made even more meaningless by the horrific nightmare in Boston.

How pointless was Game No. 81 of the Heat’s season?

• Juwan Howard was in the starting lineup for the first time since 2010. Howard is 40 years old.

• During several timeouts, the Cavaliers’ coaches didn’t talk strategy, and didn’t talk about anything at all. They simply watched the clock, looked around at the arena and waited for play to resume.

• The Heat rested six players, including all five of its usual starters: Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh. Wade, Haslem and Shane Battier didn’t even travel to Cleveland.

But, of course, the Heat still won Monday’s game.

Because that’s what this team does.

The Heat defeated the Cavaliers 96-95 on Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena in Miami’s penultimate game of the regular season. The Heat, which has won seven consecutive games while resting players for the playoffs, will finish the season 15-1 on the second night of back-to-backs games.

And while it might have been a throwaway night with less than a week to go until the playoffs, it still offered fans an exciting finish. Heat point guard Norris Cole, who missed a pair of free throws seconds earlier, stripped Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving on the final play of the game and raced down the court as time expired.

“That was a helluva steal,” said Heat forward Rashard Lewis, who started in place of James.

Irving isolated Cole on the play and drove to the basket for the winning points, but Cole timed Irving’s shot perfectly and thwarted the attempt before Irving could bring the ball above his waist. Strangely enough, Cole was credited with a block and a rebound on the play and not a steal.

Instinctive play

“In a game like that, things happen so fast that it’s about instincts,” said Cole, who was a defensive maven in college and has grown into solid perimeter stopper in this his first full season.

“He made a spin move and he had to the get the shot up and up and my instincts were when he brought the ball up, to strip down, and it just so happened that I got the ball.”

That final block and rebound were just a few of the statistics Cole accumulated during his 43 minutes of work.

It was a career night for second-year point guard from Dayton, Ohio, who played at Cleveland State University. With Chalmers resting on the bench, Cole finished an assist shy of a triple-double: 16 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

“It would have been nice to get that one more assist but, like I said, I’ll take the win,” said Cole, who was still kicking himself after the game for his two missed free throws with 14.2 seconds left.

Cole drove and dished to Ray Allen with 53.9 seconds left, but Allen’s attempt from the corner was blocked by Cavaliers rookie Dion Waiters. Allen finished with 11 points, as did Mike Miller and Joel Anthony.

Lewis had 19 points to lead the Heat (65-16), which is the 16th team to win 65 games in a season. Twelve teams in NBA history have won 66 or more.

“Sixty-five is a big number,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

So is 40, which is the age of the Heat’s current starting power forward.

Howard could start again on Wednesday against the Orlando Magic in the Heat’s final game of the season. He had seven points, two rebounds and two rebounds against the Cavs.

Feeling great

“It felt great,” Howard said. “I enjoy playing basketball and it’s a big reason why I’ve lasted so long in this league, it’s because of my passion for the game. Obviously, I haven’t had any practice time or haven’t played any this season, so it felt a little weird to be out there, but at the end of the day it’s just like riding a bicycle.”

How bizarre was it to see Howard in the starting lineup?

Consider this for perspective: Irving, the Cavaliers second-year star, was born during the 1992 NCAA Tournament. Howard was a freshman with the Fab Five at the time.

Irving, Waiters and Tristan Thompson had 16 points each for the Cavs (24-57), which has clearly checked out mentally on the season already. Daniel Gibson had 10 points off the bench.

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