LeBron James watched from the bench in street clothes as Norris Cole stripped Kyrie Irving of the ball with 2.2 seconds left to give the Miami Heat, resting most of their top players for the playoffs, a 96-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night.
Cole finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. But it was his only steal on Cleveland's final possession that sealed it.
James was disappointed to not play in another homecoming game against his former team, but he appreciated coach Erik Spoelstra's desire to get the NBA champions as healthy and refreshed as possible heading into the postseason.
Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers joined James on the bench while Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem stayed back in Miami with minor injuries.
Rashard Lewis scored 19 points and James Jones had 14 for the Heat Light.
Irving and Tristan Thompson scored 16 apiece for the Cavs, who have lost five straight, 15 of 17 and may soon relieve Byron Scott of his coaching duties.
Irving scored on two driving layups to get the Cavs within one, and Cole gave Cleveland its final chance by missing two free throws with 13.9 seconds left.
After two timeouts, the Cavs ran an isolation play for Irving, who drove left and tried to spin on Cole but had the ball taken away by the Cleveland State product. As Cole dribbled out the final seconds, James and the rest of the Heat's high-paid benchwarmers walked onto the floor to help Miami's reserves celebrate.
James was limited to a pregame workout with Bosh and Chalmers as the Heat played their final road game before finishing the regular season in Orlando on Wednesday. James was officially listed as being out with a "sore right hamstring" but his benching was more to get him set for another possible title run.
This was a fairly uneventful game compared to James' previous visit on March 20, when the Heat overcame a 27-point deficit in the second half to win; a fan wearing a T-shirt asking James to return to Cleveland ran onto the floor; and the giant scoreboard leaked fluid and delayed the opening tip.
Spoelstra sat James along with almost all of Miami's rotational players as the Heat prepare to defend their NBA championship. With James in a brown sport coat and Bosh wearing his Heat warmups, Spoelstra sent out a starting lineup of Cole, Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, Lewis and 40-year-old journeyman Juwan Howard, who made his first NBA start since April 14, 2010.
Spoelstra said he didn't care whether James was disappointed if he didn't play, but was sure the superstar understood.
James warmed up on the Quicken Loans floor, his homecourt for seven years, for more than 30 minutes before heading to the locker room. On his way out, he stopped to sign autographs in the tunnel leading to Miami's dressing room as fans leaned over a railing to hand him balls, caps, posters and anything they could.
An aluminum railing briefly gave way and nearly toppled fans on top of James. But security guards acted quickly and were able to secure the partition before ordering fans to move back before someone was seriously injured.
James said he was disappointed not to play, but supported his coach.
"I'm never sad about sitting," he said, smiling. "I'm sad about not playing."
Moments later, James said he was distressed to hear about the tragedy at the Boston Marathon.
"It puts everything in perspective," he said. "It's sad that someone would want to do something like that to take someone's life, innocent victims. What we do is nothing compared to something like that."
A third straight losing season for Cleveland is winding down with coach Scott's future in jeopardy.
Scott is already under contract for next season, but there's no guarantee he'll be back. Owner Dan Gilbert, who has not commented on Scott's status, had a courtside seat for Cleveland's last home game. He can't be happy with his team missing the playoffs again, and could be forced to change coaches.
Scott said this season has worn him down.
"I'm fatigued, mentally, physically, a little bit of everything," he said. "But I still wake up every morning ready for work."
The Cavs showed more effort than on Sunday in Philadelphia when Irving scored a career-low 4 points against the Sixers and Scott benched his starters for the entire fourth quarter.
Cleveland was down by 11 in the fourth but rallied behind Irving to at least give its fans some hope the future might not be so bleak.
NOTES: James' statistics are nearly identical to last season's, and Spoelstra doesn't see the reigning MVP slowing down anytime soon. "I don't know if many people anticipated after last year's season and finals run that he would be able to match that and be even more efficient and better year this year," Spoelstra said. "Why wouldn't
he be able to improve and take it to another level in the years coming up? He's still so young and he has that type of mindset where he'll always try to improve. ... Waiters, who recently missed 10 games with a knee injury, looked perfectly healthy when he soared for a vicious dunk over Chris "Birdman" Anderson, who nearly had a "Spalding" imprint added to his collection of tattoos. ... The Cavs finished 14-27 at home. ... Cleveland will end the regular season on Wednesday in Charlotte.