MIAMI (AP) — As LeBron James was walking to Miami’s home bench for the final time this regular season, he raised his left arm to acknowledge the roars of another sold-out crowd. And when the obligatory “M-V-P” chants started up, James waved again.
He’ll be back next weekend, with bigger goals in mind.
James finished with 32 points and eight rebounds, Norris Cole added 16 points and the Heat pulled away in the final minutes to beat Houston 97-88 on Sunday night and eliminate the Rockets from postseason contention.
“It’s very humbling, honestly,” James said. “The fans have been amazing this year and they’re going to continue to be amazing going into the postseason. … It’s humbling.”
Mike Miller scored 11 for injury-depleted Miami, which still has a mathematical chance of catching Chicago for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Joel Anthony added 11 for the Heat on 5-for-5 shooting.
But James controlled the game, especially late as Miami needed a 31-19 fourth quarter to win its regular-season home finale. The Heat played without starters Dwyane Wade (dislocated left index finger), Chris Bosh (leg muscle fatigue) and Mario Chalmers (flulike symptoms). Backup center Ronny Turiaf missed his seventh straight game while recovering from a hamstring problem.
On this night, they could relax and enjoy.
“I think LeBron is having a historic season,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Chandler Parsons scored a career-high 23 for Houston, which led by as many as 13 in the first half. Parsons tied the game at 83 with a layup late in the fourth, before James’ 3-pointer sparked an 8-0 run that put Miami in control.
Goran Dragic scored 16, while Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson had 14 apiece for the Rockets. Luis Scola scored 12.
“We had chances,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “The game was kind of in the balance at 83-all. They got some separation. LeBron is a hell of a player.”
Houston missed the playoffs for the third straight year, even though it won’t finish below .500 in any of them.
“Failure is a horrible word, I don’t like it and I don’t consider it a failure,” Scola said. “Our goal was to make the playoffs and we are hurt because we couldn’t qualify. But a failure? No, I don’t see it that way.”
It’s unclear if Wade — who after getting hurt on Saturday said he will be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs next weekend — will play in either of Miami’s two remaining regular-season games, at Boston on Tuesday and at Washington on Thursday.
Miami would like to have Bosh and Turiaf back for at least a portion of that road trip, and Chalmers is listed as day-to-day. He was a late scratch from Miami’s starting lineup on Sunday.
And for that matter, James — who sat out Saturday’s loss to rest, though said it wasn’t exactly a refreshing one-day break — might not play again before the postseason starts, either, saying he would like some rest, although Spoelstra said he’ll evaluate the who-plays-and-who-doesn’t issue daily.
So it was yet another pieced-together starting lineup that Miami sent to open the game, the 16th different one for the Heat this season — and their seventh in their last seven games.
And things didn’t start well.
The Heat missed their first six shots and trailed 23-10 after Scola made a hook shot with 3:54 left in the opening quarter. Houston’s lead was still double digits at 38-28 with 6:59 remaining until halftime, before Miami used a 17-6 run to take a one-point lead at intermission. Miller’s 3-pointer with 25 seconds left gave the Heat their first — and only — lead of the half, 45-44.
Parsons had his second-best scoring quarter of the season in the third, finishing with 12 of Houston’s 25 as the Rockets took a 69-66 lead into the fourth. Back and forth it went, the game being tied on four separate occasions in the final quarter, the last of those coming when Parsons drove on James for a layup and his 23rd point, setting the season best for the rookie.
“Fortunately, I hit shots,” Parsons said. “My teammates got me open. I just hate losing so at the end it doesn’t matter how well I played. A loss is a loss.”
Playing back in his home state for the first time as a pro, Parsons finished 10 for 13 from the floor. He spent four seasons at Florida, appearing in 142 games and averaging 10.2 points before the Rockets grabbed him in the second round of last year’s draft.
“It was great,” Parsons said. “I had a lot of family and friends here. You always want to play well for them but at the end of the day you want to get the win. It was a good learning experience and it’s exciting to be back in Florida.”
After that last tie, James took aim from the left wing and hit a 3-pointer over Parsons to put Miami up for good. And following a steal by Shane Battier, Miller added another 3 from the right corner 24 seconds later to give the Heat what was then their biggest lead at 89-83.
“Those are the kind of wins that coaches like, when there’s segments of the game where it’s just tough and ugly,” Spoelstra said. “We went through a few spells offensively where the ball was just not going in. and we stayed in it mentally.
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