CLEVELAND: Before the fan raced onto the floor but after the scoreboard began to drizzle, the villain turned near the 3-point line and sneered at the fans that once adored him, embracing the hate as his hulking shoulders and chest heaved with every exaggerated breath.
LeBron James has always thrived on drama. This time, in his old home, the script went beyond his own expectations.
On a night even crazier than his initial return three years ago, James refused to fall against his old team, embraced the fan that charged him and most importantly, refused to let the Miami Heat’s historic run of greatness end. Not on this night, not against this cast of misfits.
James had a triple-double, the Cavs suffered the biggest collapse in franchise history and the Heat marched to their 24th consecutive victory with a 98-95 victory inside Quicken Loans Arena.
What a game. What a night.
“This was one of the most bizarre, unique days of my life with everything that happened,” James said. “It also was one of the best comebacks I've ever been a part of.”
The Heat rallied from 27 points down in the third quarter, simultaneously making it the Heat’s biggest comeback of the season and the biggest lead the Cavs have blown in a loss in franchise history.
That’s enough to make it a remarkable night, but the game was delayed 35 minutes at the start because condensation off the scoreboard was dripping onto the court. It was delayed again with 8:21 left when a young man raced onto the court wearing a homemade t-shirt begging James to return to the Cavs.
The young fan wore a white t-shirt with “WE MISS YOU” scribbled on the front and “2014 COME BACK” on the back. He made it all the way onto the court and next to James before security could corral him. James said he didn’t see him until the fan was right next to him.
In a surreal scene, James shook his hand and patted him on the head before security whisked him away. James, of course, can become a free agent in 2014.
“He said he missed me and come back, please,” James said. “There are metal detectors here, so we were OK. I embraced it.”
The fan charged the court as the Heat were in the midst of a stunning comeback. They poured on the gas near the end of the third quarter when Shane Battier hit three 3-pointers in 2 ½ minutes. Then it was James’ turn. He scored 11 points within the first 2 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter and the Cavs’ lead had vanished.
They spent the rest of the night furiously fighting their way back. Without their top three scorers, the Cavs still had a shot to win it at the end. But Wayne Ellington’s jumper from just inside the 3-point line was off the mark and C.J. Miles’ 3-pointer at the buzzer was long.
Without Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, the Cavs turned to Miles for the game’s final shot. He rehearsed the scene in his head four times before the play began. He knew Shane Battier would pick him up near half-court and he knew he could dribble once or twice before taking the shot.
It went exactly as he planned, but the shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.
“This one definitely hurts,” Miles said. “Just the amount of work we put in to get to the point we were at. We played the right way defensively and offensively. To be able to let it slip away…”
James had 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in his return, while all of the injuries sabotaged coach Byron Scott’s rotations. Scott relied heavily on his starters, ignoring Miles and Mo Speights while the Heat were making their run in the third quarter.
Ellington scored 20 points and Shaun Livingston had 14 off the bench. Tristan Thompson had 18 points and eight rebounds, but 10 of those points came in the first quarter.
“We knew it was coming,” Thompson said. “They were the NBA champions last season. They’re not going to lay down. Champions don’t lay down even when they’re down by 27. We knew they were going to make a push. Guys went out and made plays, so you have to give them credit.”
Tyler Zeller had 12 points and 11 rebounds, but played just seven minutes in the second half – less than two in the fourth quarter. Scott blamed the matchups for not playing Zeller more in the second half.
“I thought it was a great effort. Our guys played hard,” Scott said. “They played about as hard as they can play.”
While that may be true, this is still the third game the Cavs have lost after leading by at least 22 points. The two biggest collapses in franchise history have occurred this season – they blew a 26-point lead in a loss to Phoenix on Nov. 9. This game was one point worse.
“This one hurts, man,” Luke Walton said. “This would’ve been nice for the city of Cleveland.”
James has now won in three of the four games at the Q since leaving the franchise. His performance in his first game back, in the face of such vitriol, may have been the finest of his career. Given the stakes and the swings of the night, this one isn’t far behind.
As he sat just a few feet away from his teammate, Dwyane Wade couldn’t help but appreciate the performance.
“That guy right there doesn’t want to lose in this building,” he said. “Not tonight.”