It was a bit anticlimactic, this second regular-season meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat. When the teams first met on December 25, a Heat victory - fueled by Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng - provided some closure on LeBron James' departure.
Since then, injuries have continued to ravage any hope of developing consistency in Miami, while we look to the future being carried on Hassan Whiteside's massive shoulders. In Cleveland, they've acquired the necessary role players to complement James and his superstar teammates. Winners of 14 of their last 15 games, they've become the legitimate title contenders everyone expected them to be.
These two teams, at such different ends of the spectrum, did not meet for the most ideal viewing experience.
Miami started the game with a Whiteside layup, giving hope that he'd be a true difference-maker. It was short-lived success, as the Cavaliers raced out to an early lead. Deng seemed particularly rusty and his four quick turnovers led to Cleveland fast-break opportunities. As the lead kept mounting, the Heat struggled to regain their composure. Timofey Mozgov, a mid-season acquisition from Denver, has provided the Cavs the inside presence they lacked early this season. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love connecting early from along the perimeter, Cleveland's inside-outside game was working to perfection. Heat players couldn't rotate quickly enough and the Cavaliers always seemed one pass ahead of a Miami defender.
The first quarter ended with a 15-point deficit and Cleveland shooting an unreal 69.6 percent, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra had limited options off the bench (with Shawne Williams and James Ennis joining Wade on the inactive list) and the reserve unit couldn't do anything to stop an energized Cavaliers team. But, just when things looked their worst and the lead at 26, the unexpected boost of Whiteside and Udonis Haslem gave Miami some momentum. The defense was tighter, the ball was passed more smoothly and the Heat's perimeter jumpers started to fall.
A 20-4 run brought Miami within 10 and there was a sudden, familiar sense of excitement.
Unfortunately, they would never get that close again.
The first half ended with Cleveland up 59-48. But the third quarter started off much like the disastrous first one, and a Cavaliers 9-0 seemed to crush what little hope the Heat had for a comeback.
Chris Bosh had a horrible night. After a 32-point explosion on Monday against the lowly Knicks, he'd only score 15 points on 5-of-17 shooting. With each missed mid-range jumper, Miami's chances of escaping with a victory grew dimmer.
The Heat kept clawing back in the third, cutting the lead to 12 before completely discombobulating and watching meekly as the third and fourth quarter wound down. The game played on because it had to, as Miami clearly didn't have the heart to continue struggling against the inevitable.
Whiteside would finish with 17 points and Mario Chalmers finished with 18 to lead Miami. Shabazz Napier (6 points) ran the offense well with eight assists and Deng chipped in a quiet 17 points. Still, despite the even production, the Heat shot just 40.5 percent from the field.
Conversely, the Cavs finished the night with a 56.4 percent field-goal rate - in truth, it seemed much higher if not for the fact they stopped caring by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. Mozgov led the team with 20 points while Tristan Thompson (17 points, 9 rebounds) and Iman Shumpert (13 points) led an extremely efficient reserve unit.
Kevin Love added 12 points early on before an inadvertent Chalmers hand scratched his eye and sent Love to the locker room. Irving added 15 points (including 3-of-5 from long range) as well.
In a night where James was the center of attention, his 18 points (on 6-of-16 shootinger) were somewhat underwhelming. It's part of what Miami relied on so heavily on the past four years...James' ability to impact a game didn't necessarily manifest in a overwhelming production. With each drive to the hoop, incredible pass, or drawing the phantom foul, it was a reminder of what made the "Big 3" era such an exciting one to watch.
Instead, Miami must move on from this loss in the hope that Wade will soon return from injury (as he's expected to do February 20 in New York) and that the Heat can finally stay healthy and regain some consistency.