ATLANTA – LeBron James scored 34 points and Miami locked up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 98-90 win over the Atlanta Hawks, who nearly rallied from a 20-point deficit while going with their backups against the Big Three in the fourth quarter Monday night.
Miami played its starters all the way, looking to clinch the second spot behind Chicago in the East. Shortly after beating the Hawks, the Heat got the news they wanted: third-place Boston lost at Washington in overtime.
The Hawks, who are locked into the fifth seed, went to a makeshift lineup for the final period and almost pulled it off.
The game turned ugly with 3½ minutes to go. Atlanta's Zaza Pachulia powered inside for a basket. Zydrunas Ilgauskas took exception to the move and slammed the ball off Pachulia's back as he turned to head back down the court.
Ilgauskas was ejected, and the Hawks hit the technical free throw to tie it at 88. But Miami outscored the Hawks 10-2 the rest of the way, with James Jones making two huge 3-pointers — including one that turned into a four-play when he was fouled by a leaping Josh Powell, sending both players flying out of bounds.
The Hawks pulled their starters for the fourth quarter. Pachulia, Powell, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague and Damien Wilkins held their own, actually outscoring Miami 23-19.
It wasn't enough.
Bosh drew a charging foul on Powell with just over a minute left, and James clinched it with his final basket of the night. The Big Three combined for 70 points, with Dwyane Wade adding 21 — the bulk of his scoring coming in the first half — and Bosh adding 15.
James also had 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
Josh Smith led the Hawks with 17 points, but it wasn't enough to prevent Atlanta from a season-high fifth straight loss — hardly the way the team wants to go into a first-round playoff matchup with Orlando, a team that wiped out the Hawks in four straight games a year ago.
Still, the gutty play of the bench provided some spark for a team that has looked downright lethargic at times during an up-and-down season. Crawford had 13 points, Teague 10, Pachulia scored nine and Wilkins finished with eight, playing an entire quarter against three of the NBA's best players.
They just ran out of steam at the end. And Miami's Big Three had another stretch that raised questions about well they'll hold up over the grind of the playoffs.
The Heat appeared to break it open over the final 6½ minutes of the second quarter, hitting 11 of its last 14 shots against Atlanta's supposed starters, who had no answer defensively.
Wade handled most of the scoring load with 13 points — including 9 in a row — during a closing 25-15 run that turned a tight game into a 62-46 lead for the Heat by halftime. James and Bosh did the rest, combining for Miami's other points during the spurt.
Miami closed with a flourish.
Mario Chalmers lobbed up a pass that James slammed through. After the Hawks turned it over, Wade went in for a thunderous slam. Bosh knocked down a 20-foot jumper. Wade finished it off with a darting dash through the lane, deking one way, then another and finally laying it in against a befuddled Wilkins.
D-Wade didn't even stop running as the horn sounded, sprinting straight to the locker room and high-fiving a Heat fan on his way to the tunnel.
Notes: Miami G Mike Bibby scored 10 points against his former team. While the officials sorted out the technical on Ilgauskas, Bibby stood near the Hawks bench, joking around with his ex-teammates. ... Kirk Hinrich, who was acquired by Atlanta in the deal that sent Bibby to Washington before he moved on to Miami, continued to struggle. He went 0-for-6 from the field and finished with a single point in 17 minutes.