Unfortunately for them, he returned.
The league's two-time reigning MVP had 41 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, Chris Bosh added 19 points and the Miami Heat rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers 117-112 on Tuesday night for their seventh straight victory.
Miami held Indiana to 28 percent shooting in the fourth quarter, giving up only 15 points after yielding a 97 in the first three periods, and saw Mario Chalmers force Dahntay Jones into a key 5-second violation with 8.9 seconds remaining.
James took care of the rest, and Miami moved within a half-game of idle Boston for the Eastern Conference's best record.
"We figured it out in the fourth quarter," James said. "Held them to 15 points and we executed."
In his last 20 games, James is averaging 29.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Not coincidentally, the Heat are 17-3 in those contests.
"I'll tell you what, he's playing MVP-like basketball on both ends of the court," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He had a motor tonight that did not fatigue. It was amazing."
James had 26 points in the first half, sending one dunk through the net and accidentally off Dwyane Wade's head -- "My bad," James said later -- then going on a tear in the final 2 minutes where he turned what was a 66-52 deficit into a 66-63 game going into halftime.
James went on the attack -- outrunning Danny Granger in transition for one dunk, flashing out of the high post and taking a pass from Chalmers for another, then converting a spinning layup while getting fouled.
"We would have been up by 40 if it wasn't for him," Granger said. "He was unconscious."
In the end, Miami needed every bit of his heroics.
"The best player in the world played at his best in his own building," said Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel, who fell to 4-1 since taking over on the Indiana sideline. "It's tough to beat."
Wade scored 17 and Chalmers added 16 for Miami, which moved five games ahead of second-place Atlanta in the Southeast Division.
"You don't have to be awesome every night," Wade said. "You have to find a way to help your ballclub win and we were able to do that."
Indiana was shooting better than 60 percent at one point in the second half, and was at 57 percent entering the final quarter. But the Pacers shot 5 for 18 in the fourth, including one dreadful stretch that gave the Heat life.
Indiana missed nine straight shots over a span of nearly 6½ minutes, but Granger's layup with 51.9 seconds remaining -- which snapped the drought -- got the Pacers within 111-110.
They needed a stop, and couldn't deliver.
Mike Miller missed a 3-pointer, but Bosh grabbed the offensive rebound to extend the possession and James eventually wound up connecting from 17 feet with 14.1 seconds left for a 113-110 Heat lead.
"A shootout for three quarters, both teams scoring the ball, making highlight plays ... and scoring with relative ease," Spoelstra said. "Finally we made a stand in the fourth quarter."
The Heat spoke both Monday and pregame Tuesday about wanting to avenge a 93-77 home loss to the Pacers on Nov. 22. It easily was their worst home defeat of the season -- considering the 16-point margin in that game exceeded the 13-point margin of their other four losses in Miami combined.
Words didn't translate into play. At least, not for much of the night, they didn't.
With James on the court in the opening two quarters, Miami outscored Indiana by 11. Without him, the Heat were outscored by 14 -- and it happened quickly.
James only got one break in the opening half, a 3-minute, 35-second rest at the start of the second quarter. And Indiana outscored Miami 18-4 in that stretch to turn a 33-29 deficit into a 45-37 lead by the time James came back into the game.
It took until 4:34 remained in the fourth for Miami to get back on top, coming when Erick Dampier slammed in the rebound of a miss by Wade for a 106-105 edge -- the first Heat lead since the opening 2 minutes of the second quarter.
The Pacers didn't lead again.
"If we want greatness, greatness is consistency," Spoelstra said. "And we're not there yet."
Pacers President Larry Bird was in attendance, and shook hands with a few fans. Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of his victory at the inaugural 3-point shootout, now a staple of All-Star weekend. ... Miller gave referee David Jones a frustrated look after the veteran official nearly ran in the way of a pass coming his way with 5:20 remaining. ... Pacers guard Brandon Rush (ankle) was active, but did not play. Rush hasn't played since Jan. 26.
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