In the days leading up to Miami's third matchup of the season with Southeast Division-rival Orlando, LeBron James stressed that even at barely the midpoint of the season there was high importance for Thursday night's game.
And James played like it, pouring in 51 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists - including a 23-point first quarter - to lead Miami to a 104-100 victory.
It was a season high for James, whose scoring effort tied for the fifth most points of his career. Dwyane Wade added 15 points and Chris Bosh 13. The victory was the Heat's fourth straight. The Magic lost for the fourth time in their last six and fell behind 2-1 in the season series with Miami.
"Just playing this team got me going," said James, who hit his first 11 shots of the night. "We understand that it wasn't just any regular-season game. There were a lot of things said about us in the offseason that came from this organization. So we just wanted to come in here and play to our abilities and make a statement."
Jameer Nelson led Orlando with 22 points. Dwight Howard had 17 points and 16 rebounds, but only one point after halftime and was just 3 for 13 at the free throw line. Jason Richardson chipped in 16.
Miami took a 16-point advantage into the final period and led 90-69 before the Magic went on a 19-4 run, capped by Gilbert Arenas' 3-pointer to cut the lead to 94-88 with 1:51 remaining in the game.
But James responded with his own trey with the shot clock winding down to give Miami a 97-88 cushion.
A missed 3-pointer by Richardson on the other end was rebounded by James, who was fouled and hit 1 of 2 free throws. Another 3 by Richardson cut the lead to 98-91 with 51.1 seconds left.
Following a pair of free throws by James to make it 103-97, Nelson hit a 3-pointer with 9.4 seconds left. The Heat lost the ball on the ensuing inbounds play, but the Magic were unable to tie it on their next possession. Wade hit a free throw to provide the final margin.
"We just let our guard down," James said. "We can't do that as a veteran ball club. You can say that about a young team. We came in (the locker room) and you could tell by the look on the guys' faces that we weren't satisfied with the way we finished the game out. That's always a good sign. It's wasn't just 'Let's celebrate.'"
Aside from the late flurry by Orlando, there was another scary moment for the Heat in the third quarter.
After a time-out, the Heat players - even those who were on the bench - went out to check on Wade, who was face-down on the court. He eventually walked gingerly to the bench and remained in the game to shoot two free throws. He went to the locker room and returned with a heat pack on his back. He returned to start the fourth quarter.
He had ice on his back afterward, but said he will travel with the team to Charlotte and plans to play Friday. He said he didn't think the play by Howard was dirty.
Nelson said he was pleased with his team's comeback effort, but not with another slow start by the Magic, who he said succeeded for the most part Thursday in forcing the Heat to shoot jumpers.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said their early offensive woes were too much to overcome. For the night, Orlando shot just 42 percent.
"Everybody struggled on the offensive floor," Van Gundy said. "I was quote honestly pretty happy with the shots that we got. Some nights I'm not, but I thought we got good shots. I thought we had trouble putting the ball in the basket."
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said that though he was pleased with the win, the final six minutes is what he will be watching for their final meeting on March 3.
"They've very competitive. You've got to be on top of you game and for 42 minutes we played as well and as efficient as we can on both ends of the court. We had an unfortunate six-minute lapse, but I'm not going to let that take away from the win," he said. "It was a good win. Our guys were very motivated in this game to beat a division rival, but hopefully we've learned our lesson."
Notes: According to STATS LLC, in the lasts 25 years the only player with at least 50 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in game was Michael Jordan against Phoenix on Jan. 21, 1989. ... The Magic were outrebounded 35-27. ... Making his fifth start of the season, Anderson scored in double figures for 19th time in the last 22 games.