NEW ORLEANS — When LeBron James was late coming out for pregame warmups Friday, it caused some anxiety among fans at New Orleans Arena.
But then out came James — who had done a lot of stretching in the locker room — sprinting onto the court long after his teammates as the fans cheered loudly.
James got started late once the game started, too, but that also was much ado about nothing. With James dominating, the defending NBA champion Heat ran to an insurmountable halftime lead and coasted to a 108-89 victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,647.
James scored 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting, including 7-of-10 on 3-point attempts. He sat out the fourth quarter. Guard Dwyane Wade had 17 points and Chris Bosh 10.
“After (James) hit that first 3, you just let it ride,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. “We talked about today not having a letdown, an exhale, but rather focusing on competing and revealing our character in a game like this. At least we competed, although that team is very undermanned.”
James scored 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first quarter to get the Heat started with a 10-point lead. He said the road fans’ cheers had a lot to do with.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “I wanted to show my appreciation.”
Said Hornets coach Monty Williams: “We missed so many shots that we’ve been making this past week, but you have to give them credit. They fed off the energy they got from those makes by LeBron.”
Ryan Anderson led the Hornets with 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting, and Eric Gordon had 17. Brian Roberts, starting at point guard with Greivis Vasquez out with a sprained ankle, scored 13 and Anthony Davis 11.
The victory, with a big test coming Sunday at San Antonio, was the 28th in 29 games for Miami, which had its 27-game winning streak snapped Wednesday in Chicago.
The Heat (57-15) have the NBA’s best record, and the Spurs (55-17) have the second-best.
The loss was the second consecutive for the Hornets (25-48), who had won three in a row before Wednesday’s home loss to the Clippers on this seven-game home stand.
With one home game left, Sunday vs. Cleveland, New Orleans is 3-3.
With the Heat playing against a team trying to build from the ground up, it showed off its depth, experience, versatility and ultimately its championship pedigree.
Miami shot 60.9 percent, including 14-of-27 (51.9 percent) on 3-point shots. The Hornets have given up 27 3-pointers in the past two games.
Heading into the game, Williams said his team needed to return to playing with force.
Curiously, there was little of that Friday, even after the Bulls had shown the way by beating the Heat with their physical play.
“They had us on our heels from the beginning, and it was all downhill from there,” Davis said. “I’m not sure why it wasn’t there. We had a great practice.”
Miami was leading 22-15 with 1:54 showing in the first quarter when James sank 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions during a 1-minute, 9-second spree to push the lead to 31-19.
Both teams seemed to start the game a bit anxious. By the midway point of the first quarter, the Hornets had turned the ball over six times and the Heat five. At that point, the Hornets led 11-9.
However, the Heat was settling in with its defense, trapping Roberts and at times James guarding him. When Ray Allen, then Shane Battier entered the game, things changed. Allen made a baseline jumper over Roberts, and Battier hit a 3-pointer. Just like that, Miami led 20-13 at 3:07. More important, the Heat had control.
With the Hornets leaving Al-Farouq Aminu isolated defensively against James, he picked up in the second quarter where he left off in the first. From the 11:13 mark to 8:27, James hit five consecutive shots, and Miami built a 47-27 bulge. At that point, James had outscored the Hornets with 28 points on 10-of-11 shooting, including six 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, like a boa constrictor, the Heat continued to tighten its defense. The Hornets had few open shots in the second quarter and made just 3 of 12 before Roberts pulled up for a 15-foot baseline leaner at 3:14, making it 55-33.
New Orleans’ only solace was that it outscored the Heat 8-3 in the final 2:30.
But Miami shot 69.7 percent for the half, including 7-of-11 (63.6 percent) on 3-point shots, to the Hornets’ 15-of-37 (40.5).
Just as he started the game, James got his teammates involved first as the third quarter started before taking over. When it was over, Miami led 81-60, and he had 36 points.
In the fourth quarter, the lead reached 29 points, the largest of the game, at 98-69.
Of course, the damage had long been done.