By Andre C. Fernandez, McClatchy Newspapers –
NEWARK, N.J. — LeBron James gave the Miami Heat a performance to remember.
And then paused to give a 7-year-old boy a gift he won’t soon forget.
James walked off the court Monday night at the Prudential Center shoeless moments after scoring the Heat’s final 17 points in a 101-98 comeback win against the host New Jersey Nets.
He then took off his shoes, autographed them and handed them Daniel Julez Smith, the nephew of singer Beyonce Knowles, who sat courtside with husband/rapper/Nets minority owner Jay-Z at the game.
“Am I going to miss those shoes?” James said. “No, I got another pair. We came too far to take the foot off the gas. I looked at the scoreboard and didn’t know what I was doing individually. I knew I was making some plays though. I didn’t know I scored 17 straight.”
The celebrity trio witnessed James’ fourth-quarter effort that salvaged an otherwise sloppy effort by the Heat, which won the second of back-to-back games. The victory in the Heat’s final game in New Jersey against the Nets, who will move to Brooklyn next season, was Miami’s third in a row.
“No. 6 was pretty good,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “(James) was sensational. He made every big play. That’s what an MVP does at both ends of the court.”
With a stretch of eight games in 11 days, the Heat has been finding opportunities to rest key players recently, and did so Monday with Dwyane Wade. The team for Wade to rest his injured ankle as much as possible before the playoffs.
It’s a good thing James didn’t miss Monday’s game.
The Heat struggled for most of the game against the Nets, who played without star guard Deron Williams, who sat out with a sore calf muscle.
But to the chants of “M-V-P” from the partisan crowd, James took over the game in the final five-plus minutes to give Miami (43-17) its second consecutive road victory.
James finished with 37 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
The Heat, just barely, improved to 12-1 this season without Wade in the lineup.
Chris Bosh was also big, finishing with 22 points and 15 rebounds. It was Bosh’s second consecutive game with 10 or more rebounds.
“We need these games regardless of who’s in and who is out,” Spoelstra said. “It’s great to show toughness on the road particularly being down and not let it go mentally.”
The victory kept the Heat 4?1/2 games ahead of Indiana and is one win from locking down the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed.
The Heat trailed the Nets (22-40) by as many as 13 points and trailed 79-70 after a Gerald Green three-pointer to end the third quarter.
But down the stretch, James came alive after checking in with 5:35 left in the fourth quarter.
“When we tied the game they took the timeout, it got under six and coach hadn’t looked at me,” James said. “That’s usually my point to go back in. I didn’t know if he would put me back in or not. When he looked down, gave me the nod, I was ready to go and do my best to help us win the game.”
With the Prudential Center cheering him on as the team rallied, James gave the Heat its first lead — 97-96 — at 51 seconds on a drive to the hoop.
Sundiata Gaines missed a three-pointer on the ensuing possession. James hit a jumper near the foul line from eight feet out with 13.8 left to give the Heat a 99-96 lead.
After a timeout, the Heat’s defense forced DeShawn Stevenson to commit a five-second violation. James put the game away, making a pair of free throws with 10.6 left.
James made 14 of 15 free throws for the game and made 6 of 6 during his surge.
Nets coach Avery Johnson marveled at how James could not be stopped in the closing moments.
“We were in there just talking about it and watching the video,” Johnson said. “The guy is so big and so strong. We attempted to double-team him twice, and he just overpowered our guys. And when the third defender came, he beat the third defender, then we fouled him and he still scored. I’m at a loss for words.”
Kris Humphries, who finished with 29 points and eight rebounds, hit a shot to give the Nets a 96-90 lead with 2:06 left.
James’ run began in earnest after that point as he scored the next 11 points.
Joel Anthony collected a rebound after Bosh tipped a Mike Miller missed three-point shot to him. Anthony found James driving to the basket. James scored and completed a three-point play after drawing a foul from MarShon Brooks.
Next possession, James drove and scored off a screen underneath by Bosh.
Green missed an open shot even after he got some space from Miller on a crossover.
Another James layup and the comeback was complete.
“It’s key to continue to get better. We want to do that every night. The Nets played extremely well and made some tough shots. We took enough steps forward in the process of closing out games heading into the postseason.”