1. LeBron Keeps Miami Alive With Sweet 16 Win
MIAMI -- There have been times throughout the Miami Heat's longest winning streak in franchise history when different variables were required to pull out a victory.
In some instances, the Heat relied on luck.
Other occasions demanded a steady dose of LeBron James.
Miami needed every bit of both to squeeze past the tougher-than-expected Orlando Magic for a 97-96 victory that gave the Heat their 16th straight win. Unlike the previous 15, Wednesday's came by the slimmest of margins and wasn't secured until James made the second of his two major adjustments down the stretch, scoring the game-winning layup with less than three seconds remaining.
But before the Heat got that lift from LeBron, they benefited from a few lucky breaks, a few more favorable calls and a couple of moments when role players clawed their way into the right position at just the right time.
That was a major reason James and his teammates didn't exit AmericanAirlines Arena with grand illusions.
"You cannot win that many games in a row without winning some games that you shouldn't win," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had 24 points and continued his recent hot shooting by going 10-of-16 from the field. "You are going to win some games where you didn't play as well and you are going to get lucky. You have to get some breaks and opportunities. You don't go on these streaks without having a little luck."
A little luck and a lot of LeBron.
Luck had little to do with the Heat squandering all of a 20-point second-half lead and trailing by as many as five in the fourth quarter. That was the result of Miami being unable to contain Magic center Nikola Vucevic for the second time in as many games. After pounding the Heat's front line for 20 points and 29 rebounds in a Dec. 31 overtime loss for the Magic in Orlando, Vucevic hammered Miami for 25 points and 21 rebounds Wednesday before fouling out in the final minute.
Vucevic proved at least two things in the process. The 23-year-old 7-footer showed that Miami still has some issues to address against teams with size and an aggressive presence in the paint. Vucevic also made a remarkable case for being the best asset to come of that blockbuster trade that was built around an underachieving Dwight Howard and the unavailable Andrew Bynum.
Luck might have come into play for the Heat with some of the questionable calls -- and several loose balls in the fourth quarter -- that went their way in critical moments. Statistically, the Heat shot slightly worse from the field than Orlando, were outrebounded by 12, were outscored in the paint and were outscored in second-chance points.
But Miami dominated the whistles and the free throw disparity. The Heat attempted 31 free throws compared with 12 for the Magic. Orlando committed 30 fouls, with three of its most productive players -- Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris -- each disqualified on his sixth foul in the final pivotal minutes of the game. Meanwhile, the Heat were called for 17 fouls, with James, Wade and Chris Bosh combining for just three among them.
Magic first-year coach Jacque Vaughn was savvy enough to avoid potential league-fine territory in expressing his displeasure with the officiating disparity. Instead, he broke down the biggest difference in the game by explaining simple arithmetic.
"It was a good fight for us [but] I wish we had a better shot," Vaughn said. "They got to the free throw line and shot 31 free throws. You can add it up. Thirty fouls to 17, and three of our guys foul out, but one day we'll get there."
The Heat, on the other hand, are a team that has arrived as the hottest team in the league. James played a key role in delivering his team to the doorstep of matching the longest winning streak any team has had in the league this season.
With a victory Friday against Philadelphia, the Heat would run the winning streak to 17 games, which would match the Los Angeles Clippers' run from Nov. 28 through Dec. 30.
Miami nearly squandered the opportunity Wednesday until James made two in-game adjustments in the fourth quarter.
First, James switched defensive assignments and threw himself right into the middle of the Magic's effective pick-and-roll sets between Vucevic and Jameer Nelson, who had rallied the Magic back into the game with 16 points and 14 assists while picking apart the Heat's defense. The defensive assignment left James having to defend the smaller, quicker Nelson on one possession and then rotating to take on the bigger, stronger Vucevic on the next trip.
The Magic would make just one shot from the field over the final four minutes of the game.
"It's a challenge when you have to guard multiple guys and you have to switch your focus," James said. "Jameer and Vucevic had a lot of chemistry going with that 1-5 pick-and-roll. I just tried to take the challenge on. I was either playing the ball or we were switching. It helps when you can have multiple guys guard multiple players."
The next adjustment was one for the highlight reel. It was the game-winning drive from James, who drove left around two defenders and hooked a left-handed shot off the glass. Two possessions before that one, James had settled for a pair of 3-pointers that both missed with the Heat trailing.
After adjusting his defensive assignment on one end, James had to alter his offensive mindset to secure the win.
"This one, he said, 'OK, I'm not going to let you off the hook,'" Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of James' decision to drive to the basket. "He said, 'I'm going to make something happen, get to the rim,' and it's either going to be a bucket, foul or he's going to kick it to someone wide open. So he took it into his own hands. It was the right decision."
They both were the right decisions.
In addition to a little luck and a lot of LeBron, the Heat's winning streak lives on because of a boost from other players who had key roles in its preservation. Shane Battier drew a charge on Harris that wiped away a Magic layup that would have put them ahead 98-93 with a minute left.
Bosh was overshadowed by Vucevic but did enough to get his own double-double, with 17 points and 10 rebounds. His biggest play, though, was battling for a loose ball that led to Vucevic fouling out with 38 seconds left. A few seconds later, James would score at the rim with Orlando's biggest and best paint defender disqualified on the bench.
Bosh would joke later in the locker room that that box-out was sort of an extended assist for James' game-winning basket.
"To me, it was the biggest play of the game," Bosh quipped. "But they probably don't show those loose-ball battles and stuff in the highlights on 'SportsCenter.'"
Bosh was soon proved wrong.
There were plenty of Heat highlights to go around. Yes, even for a game that was the lowlight of their win streak.
2. Around the Association
MVP: In a losing effort, Nikola Vucevic tied a career high with 25 points to go along with 21 rebounds. It was his second 20-20 game of his career -- with both coming this season against the Heat.
Defining moment: The Heat put the ball in LeBron James' hands and he delivered, making the game-winning layup with 3.2 seconds remaining to beat the Magic. LeBron isolated on the right wing and attacked the rim with little resistance.
That was ... close: With the win, the Heat extended their franchise-high winning streak to 16 games, but they didn't make it easy on themselves. They blew a 20-point lead, but LeBron was able to bail them out.
MVP: Kevin Garnett. The Pacers shot 36.4 percent, and while that might have been more about Avery Bradley's pressure than KG, Garnett also made seven of his 10 attempts on a night when nobody could shoot.
X factor: Doc Rivers. After his team mounted a 9-0 run to tie the game late, the coach with the voice of gravel penned an exquisite play to free Jeff Green for a game-winning layup with 0.5 seconds left.
That was ... errant. The teams combined to miss 105 field goals in a game that featured just 171 attempts. Indiana nearly broke both rims going 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) from behind the arc. Red Auerbach is rolling over in his grave.
MVP: Kobe Bryant. Despite a 25-point deficit, Kobe refused to go quietly into the night, and the Lakers needed every one of his 42 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds to win this game.
Defining moment: The Lakers outscored the Hornets 33-9 in the fourth quarter. 'Nuff said.
X factor: Jodie Meeks. Although Kobe ultimately won the game for the Lakers, the comeback could not have happened were it not for Meeks' timely 3-pointers. He was 5-of-9 from deep.
MVP: Amar'e Stoudemire's season high-tying 22 points on 12 shots, along with nine rebounds and some surprisingly passable defense off the bench in Carmelo Anthony's absence, earn him the honors.
That was ... a game of runs: The Knicks opened the game with a 40-25 lead, but the Pistons stormed back with runs of 8-0 and 18-4 to take a double-digit lead in the third quarter. New York then responded with two separate 16-0 runs to seal a 10-point win.
X factor: Raymond Felton overcame poor ballhandling (seven turnovers) and spotty defense (his mark, Jose Calderon, had 10 points and 16 assists) with hot shooting, scoring 26 points on 15 shots, which included 4-for-5 from 3-point land.
MVP: Blake Griffin's 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists gave him his first triple-double since his rookie year. This wasn't just a raw display of athleticism -- it was calm, controlled footwork that did most of the damage. He's evolved.
X factor: The Clippers stayed out of arm's reach all night, scoring 50 points in the paint and getting only two shots sent away by the league's best shot-blocking team.
Well, that was ... a flood. When Matt Barnes rains in six 3-pointers and Jamal Crawford goes 11-for-16, your perimeter D might have more than a few leaks. The Bucks played well offensively, but they looked terribly flawed.
MVP: Jeff Teague recorded his seventh 20-point, 10-assist game of the season, going for 27 and 11. Teague is what got the Hawks going in the first quarter, scoring 11 points in that period by hitting several jumpers.
X factor: I can't wait to tell my grandkids that I witnessed the Anthony Tolliver game. Tolliver had 21 points off the bench and was 5-for-7 from downtown. He added eight rebounds for good measure.
LVPs: Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. The two Sixers starters combined to go 4-for-19 from the field. When Damien Wilkins scores 21 points ... you shouldn't be looking at the scoreboard and wondering why you're losing.
MVP: Tim Duncan recently said he'd need to step up in Tony Parker's absence. He didn't disappoint, dutifully stepping in with an efficient 18-point, 10-rebound night -- with five blocks, too. More importantly? He obliterated the Bulls defensively. Nothing easy!
X factor: In just 26 minutes, Manu Ginobili put up 18 points on 14 shots, nine assists, three boards and a number of backbreaking shots to put Chicago away. It's virtually impossible to beat San Antonio when Manu is playing like that.
That was ... a game of runs: The whole "game of runs" trope is a bit played out, but it's EXACTLY what happened tonight. Chicago had separate runs of 15-1 and 15-0. The Spurs had runs of 15-0 and 14-2.
MVP: O.J. Mayo wore many hats in the game against the Rockets. He had a career-high 12 assists and didn't commit a single turnover. He had his second double-double of the season as he scored 13 points.
X factor: Shawn Marion's defense. James Harden had 28 points, but Marion made him work for everything he got. Harden went 5-for-17 from the field. The bearded one did his damage at the line, as he was 16-for-16 from the charity stripe.
That was ... feisty. That was a chaotic fourth quarter in Dallas. Threes were raining down, and emotions were running high. There was a playoff atmosphere as the in-state rivals battled it out. In a game Dallas desperately needed, the Mavs were able to keep their slim playoff chances alive.
MVP: Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. It'd be difficult and wrong to pick one of these players over the other for game MVP. Gasol controlled the boards and hit plenty of gritty inside shots, while Conley had a huge third quarter to get Memphis back into the game.
X factor: Damian Lillard was unstoppable in the first quarter as he scored 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting. However, Lillard cooled off considerably for the rest of the game. His inability to maintain the fire helped key Portland's third-quarter collapse.
That was ... not good offense. With Zach Randolph's absence, the Grizzlies depended overwhelmingly on Gasol and Conley for offense. Those two shot 17-for-28 (60.7 percent) from the field, while the rest of the Grizzlies shot 21-of-59 (35.5 percent). Coupled with Portland's team-wide 40.8 percent shooting, the rims in FedEx Forum took quite a beating.
3. Wednesday's Best
Bryant scored 13 of his 42 points in the last 6:22 of the game, helping the Lakers rally from a 25-point deficit to beat the New Orleans Hornets 108-102. Bryant made 14 of 21 field goals, 12 assists and 7 rebounds.
4. Wednesday's Worst
The setting Suns: When was the last time a team did not have a single starter in double digits for scoring? Um, tonight? The Suns absorbed a 98-71 home loss at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. And how did Hamed Haddadi manage to commit four fouls in nine minutes?
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I'm not surprised by it. I would be more surprised when Dwight starts taking responsibility. That would be the most negative thing I can say, but that's the truth. You can't take all the credit and not accept any of the blame."
-- J.J. Redick, on Dwight Howard's comment that his former Orlando teammates were players nobody wanted.
8. Comeback Kobe
9. Stat Check
Kyrie Irving scored 11 points in the fourth quarter of Cleveland's comeback victory over Utah on Wednesday. It was the 14th time this season that Irving has scored in double digits in the fourth quarter of a game, the fourth-highest total in the NBA, behind Kevin Durant (20), Kobe Bryant (19) and Jamal Crawford (17).
10. Dunk Of The Night
Around the Association
MVP: Kyrie Irving was a whit inefficient, but during crunch time, he was the Cavaliers' offensive engine. He finished the game with a gaudy stat line: 20 points, 10 assists and 7 rebounds.
LVP: Utah's Mo Williams had a miserable return from injury, shooting 3-for-12 and turning the ball over four times. Salt in the wound: He blew an easy layup that would have given his team the lead with five seconds to go.
X factor: C.J. Miles runs hot and cold, but tonight he was on, contributing 12 points and 4 rebounds in just 18 minutes. Early in the fourth quarter, he jump-started the Cavs' offense as the game was slipping away.
MVP: Deron Williams led the field tonight in both scoring and passing with 20 points and eight assists. He sparked the Nets' third-quarter run with eight points and four assists while accounting for four of Brooklyn's 13 triples.
Defining moment: The Bobcats' 10-point lead heading into the second half quickly evaporated once they implemented their zone defense. The Nets -- wasting no time -- immediately went on an 8-0 run that sparked a subsequent 28-9 third-quarter run.
That was ... a turnaround: After allowing 22 points in the paint in the first quarter, the Nets gave up just 20 for the rest of the game, while outrebounding Charlotte 42-20. The Bobcats are just 1-15 this season when they get beat on the glass.
MVP: Sebastian Telfair. No, seriously. In a game in which very few seemed interested, he was playfully toying with his former team. He finished with 13 points, seven assists and four steals in 27 minutes.
That was ... ugly. The two teams combined for an obscene 49 turnovers. Nine players coughed up the pill three or more times, including five for DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors had a ridiculous 39 points off turnovers.
X factor: In the second quarter, Marcin Gortat went down holding his foot. The latest update was that he had gone for X-rays, indicating a foot injury rather than an Achilles tear. He played just 11 minutes.
MVP: Ricky Rubio scored 15 points, dished out 11 assists, grabbed seven boards and had six steals against only three turnovers. It's not every game in which the MVP hits just four of 15 field goals. But Rubio's stunning defensive intensity and his magical passing were just too valuable for the Wolves to ignore.
X factor: How did the Wizards lose a game in which their opponent shot just 41 percent from the floor and 68 percent from the line? Ah, by turning the ball over 24 times -- a ridiculous number that translated into 30 Wolves points. It's hard to win when you give that many possessions away.
LVP: The Wolves are seriously undermanned in the frontcourt, and Nene had many pounds and many inches on everyone who tried defending him. So what did he do with that advantage? His line read: 3-for-8 from the field, eight rebounds, seven turnovers, five fouls.
MVP: David Lee. Golden State's All-Star, unbelievably, was the only member of his team's core rotation that made at least 50 percent of his shots. He finished with 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field and 10 rebounds, and made the game's decisive assist, too.
Defining moment: With his team up a point, John Salmons got caught in no-man's land and allowed Klay Thompson a wide-open corner 3-pointer. Tyreke Evans missed a driving layup on the other end, and the game was effectively over.
That was ... ugly. Both teams shot less than 40 percent from the field for the game, and each committed a fair share of careless turnovers, too. If not for the great finish, this might have been the worst game of the year.