Miami got good news before the game (what a welcome change!), as Hassan Whiteside returned to the starting lineup for the first time since lacerating his hand last week. Perhaps it provided a much-needed spark, as the Heat shot out to a quick 7-3 lead.
Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the evening.
It didn't take much time for Miami to look overmatched, with Cleveland - lead by Coach of the Year candidate LeBron James - executing sharply on offense and playing at a higher energy level than the Heat. Down just one point late in the first quarter, the Cavs would close on an 11-5 run that put them ahead, 34-27, capping off the period with an Iman Shumpert buzzer-beater.
The Cavaliers started off the second even better than before, taking advantage of the absence of Whiteside and with Dwyane Wade looking somewhat sluggish. Many had questioned whether Wade - who seemed out of sorts during Tuesday's loss to San Antonio - should even have been playing.
And then this happened:
With Wade (and Miami's season) crumpled on the floor, everyone's worst fears were brought to life. He would limp directly off the floor and wouldn't return; an early diagnosis was a bruised knee. While it was less than ideal, it appeared that the injury wouldn't have a long-lasting impact on Miami's best player.
In fact, the team seemed inspired by the loss of their leader.
The Heat would go a quick 8-3 run, with Whiteside finishing at the rim and everyone, from James Ennis to Tyler Johsnon, contributing in some way. As the first half came to a close, Miami would cut a lead that had ballooned up to 21 down to a more manageable 11.
Kyrie Irving, a game-time decision due to illness, would come out inspired to start the third quarter (and finishing with 23 points, 5 assists and 4 steals). But despite a the hot-shooting, a Goran Dragic 3-pointer (one of the few highlights from a forgettable 11-point outing) managed to cut the lead to just 10 midway through the period. Unfortunately, the lead would never reach single-digits as Miami missed several opportunities at the rim and couldn't contain Cleveland along the perimeter, where they shot 42.9 percent on the night.
The Cavs were led by James 23 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal and 3 blocks - shades of the all-around game that Heat fans witnessed over the previous four seasons. But Cleveland got some key contributions from several role players, including J.R. Smith (12 early points to help set the pace), Matthew Dellavedova (14 points, 4 assists) and Shumpert (17 points).
It wasn't quite the potential playoff preview many expected and certainly not the positive performances that Miami managed against Cleveland in two previous victories at the AmericanAirlines Arena. The fourth quarter was merely a technicality, as a slapdash lineup of role players held together by chewing gum and duct tape tried to keep pace with a team that many predict will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Perhaps there was no better sign of how lopsided the game was in that Kendrick Perkins scored four points in four meaningless minutes.
With the game mercifully over, Miami's attention shifts to their primary concern - regaining some level of health for the rest of the season. Should Wade be able to return sooner than expected, the Heat won't have to tinker with a rotation that has been changed dozens of times over the course of the season. If not...we could see the return of Mario Chalmers or Tyler Johnson to the starting lineup.
Which brings us to their secondary concern; a potential playoff berth. With Wade's recent brilliance and winning just enough to climb to the 7th-seed in the Eastern Conference standings, many considered Miami's playoff journey to be a foregone conclusion. That's far from the truth, with or without Wade on the floor, especially with five losses in their previous seven games. Upcoming matchups against Detroit, Indiana and Charlotte - the latter two teams still making their own playoff pushes - will likely decide Miami's fate.
A matchup between Miami and Cleveland in the playoffs would be an intriguing and dramatic story that NBA fans - and television executives - would drool to watch. The biggest problem, of course, is that Miami still needs to simply make the playoffs, a possibility that seems more and more remote with every passing game and added injury.