The Miami Heat won their 65th game of the regular season and their 29th road win with a brand new starting lineup and little resemblance to the team that won all those games before.
Juwan Howard went from being the last Heat player to sign on for the season all the way to the starting lineup with just one more game left after tonight. Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem did not make the trip to Cleveland, with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers also sitting this one out on the bench.
Norris Cole overcame a shaky start to lead the team to the razor-thin 96-95 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in their final road game of the season. The second-year guard almost notched a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists but the one steal he had sealed the victory with his late second strip of Cavs guard Kyrie Irving. But those who did play also brought strong performances. Six of the nine players that did dress up reached double-digits in scoring.
The new lineup of Cole, Howard, Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, and Joel Anthony did not impress at the outset, with three quick turnovers in the first three minutes of the game and just a pair of shot attempts as a team. For Cole's part, he showed little shot clock awareness in one play and was also blocked on a subsequent layup attempt.
Despite the slow start, Birdman knocked down a three-pointer off the glass to cut the deficit to just four at the buzzer to end the first quarter. The Heat then started to warm up beyond the arc in the second quarter, with threes by Cole, Ray Allen (twice) and James Jones. Unfortunately, the Cavs kept scoring as well with their big men having success inside with just Howard, Lewis, Anthony and Birdman to patrol the paint. An 11-2 run near the end of the second quarter along with eight triples in the first half helped the Heat keep afloat.
The Heat were able to get their first lead of the game with a running hook for a 3-point play from Juwan. Ten straight points from the visitors was enough to swing the game, including 5 points in a row from Howard. While the Heat kept scoring consistently, Anthony protected the rim with 2 timely blocks and had some impressive defensive sequences but most impressively was a perfect 5-5 from the field tonight and reached double-figures with 11 points to go along with 9 rebounds. The Cavs keep missing from the field in the third quarter before making their first shot in 10 tries after an Alonzo Gee triple.
Heat got the lead up to 9 with an Anthony dunk but after scoring 31 points in both the second and third quarter, the Heat's offense couldn't keep up in the final quarter with a resurgent Irving (who had been quiet throughout the game) along with strong play from Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and Gee.
In the end, Cole missed a pair of free throws that could have boosted the lead to three points with seconds left on the clock. He then more than made up for it with his steal, aided by Irving trying to do too much with the ball and attempting a difficult spin around jumper in an ill-fated attempt to win the game for the Cavs. With the ball in hand and the Heat victory complete, Cole was visibly elated to have the ball in his hands with the clock running out and his teammates and coaching staff gave the young player plenty of cheer.
Never mind that the game meant nothing, maybe more so than ever on a dark day like today, but ultimately it was still an entertaining game of basketball by the end and that was much more than what was expected when it was announced how many Heat players would be sitting this one out.
One more game and then they start to count in a big way. Thankfully the core of the defending champs will be well rested for the challenge ahead.