Updated at: 03/21/2013 4:39 PM
By TOM WITHERS
(AP) CLEVELAND - The jilted billionaire owner offered an olive branch. The scoreboard leaked fluid, causing a long delay. The home team, missing its top three scorers, built a mammoth lead over the defending NBA champions. A fan sprinted onto the court, hoping to convince LeBron James to come back home.
Just an ordinary night in Cleveland.
James made it a memorable one, and kept Miami’s streak alive.
Refusing to concede anything, James scored 25 points _ 14 in the fourth quarter _ and the Heat, trailing by 27 in the third quarter, rallied for a 98-95 win Wednesday night over the Cavaliers to extend their winning streak to 24 games and move within nine of matching the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest in NBA history.
"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."
He made it happen.
With the Heat trailing by nine points entering the fourth quarter, James made a 3-pointer and layup before draining another long 3 to tie it at 77 with 10:28 left. After his shot dropped through the net, James turned toward the sellout crowd in Quicken Loans Arena and delivered any icy stare to many of the same faces who cheered him during his seven seasons as a member of the Cavaliers.
This was his moment, the one he and his teammates would remember.
"When he made that one and turned around and looked at the crowd, you knew it was coming," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said.
James and his teammates have insisted the Lakers’ record, once believed to be untouchable but now within their reach, isn’t a goal. And for more than 30 minutes, they seemed disinterested and were on the verge of losing for the first time since Feb. 1. Miami trailed 67-40 with 7:44 left in the third quarter, and there weren’t many signs that they were going to make it a game.
But Shane Battier made three 3-pointers as the Heat closed the third quarter with a 28-10 run and the irrepressible James, who added 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 42 minutes, did the rest in the fourth as the Heat inched closer to history while matching the NBA’s biggest comeback this season.
It was the second game in a row where the Heat had to rally. They were down by 17 points _ 13 in the fourth quarter _ and stormed back to beat Boston 105-103 on Monday and surpass the 2007-08 Houston Rockets for the second-longest streak in NBA history.
"I knew there was a lot of time, so we never panicked," James said. "We were down 27 with 18 minutes left. That’s a lifetime in basketball."
Although the Cavs were missing All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao _ their top three scorers _ they pushed Miami to the limit.
It wasn’t until James, playing his fourth game back in Cleveland since leaving three years ago, made two free throws with 4.7 seconds left that Miami could relax, but just a little.
The Cavs had one last chance to tie it, but C.J. Miles was long with a 3-pointer in the final second, letting Miami off the hook and sending the Heat home with a chance to extend their streak to 25 on Friday against Detroit.
Following the game, James stopped to sign a few autographs as he made his way to Miami’s locker room. This was much tougher than he and the Heat could have imagined. The win also completed a five-game road trip, dubbed "The Reunion Tour" by James because Miami visited Wade’s home in Milwaukee, Chris Bosh’s former team in Toronto and Ray Allen’s in Boston.
"The streak wasn’t on my mind, but us getting blown out was," James said. "I was going to be the only guy to take an `L’ on the reunion tour."
Mario Chalmers added 17 points and Wade had 11 for the Heat, who outscored the Cavs 30-18 in the fourth quarter and 64-40 in the second half.
Wayne Ellington had 20 points and Tristan Thompson 18 for Cleveland, which went from a stunning upset to blowing the biggest lead in a loss in franchise history.
"We knew it was coming," Thompson said of the Heat’s comeback. "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."
It was a painful blow to the young Cavs and owner Dan Gilbert, who had a courtside seat to watch James do his thing. When James left Cleveland as a free agent, Gilbert harshly criticized James in a letter written to Cavs fans. Gilbert promised Cleveland would win a title before James, and has said he regrets making the claim.
Last year, James said it would be "great" to play in Cleveland again, but that he had yet to work out his differences with Gilbert. While James has moved on, it has taken longer for some Cleveland fans, who can’t forgive him for abandoning his home without winning a championship.
Before Wednesday’s game, Gilbert went on his Twitter account and posted a message to say he’s no longer looking back.
"Cleveland Cavaliers young talent makes our future very bright," Gilbert wrote. "Clearly, LeBron’s is as well. Time for everyone to focus on the road ahead."
This game had a little of everything with a carbon dioxide container dripping onto the court and pushing the opening tip back 35 minutes, and a young fan running onto the floor in the fourth quarter wearing a T-shirt that said: "We Miss You, 2014 Come Back," a reference to James’ possible free agency and return to Cleveland.
James went out of his way and patted the fan on the head as security rushed him off the floor.
"He said he missed me and come back, please," James said. "I wasn’t worried. There are metal detectors here, so we were OK. I embraced it."
NOTES: Starting with the Cavs, Miami’s next 10 games are against opponents with a combined winning percentage of just .399. ... The Heat play the Pistons and Charlotte at home before going to Orlando, Chicago, New Orleans and San Antonio. ... It was the first time Miami overcame a 21-point halftime deficit to win. ... The Cavs will wait a week before they evaluate Waiters, who has loose cartilage, and decide whether he needs surgery. Cleveland coach Byron Scott hopes his young guard comes back in the final month. "If he gets back, I’ll be thrilled to death," Scott said. ... Miami’s three wins over Cleveland this season have been by a total of nine points.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)