CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers have received a defensive boost from an unlikely source, and right about a time they needed it most. Now that J.R. Smith could be headed back to the lineup, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue is still trying to make room for defensive weapon DeAndre Liggins.
LeBron James scored 27 points against his former team to move into ninth place on the NBA's career scoring list in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 114-84 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night, but it was the defensive contribution from Liggins that caught Lue's eye.
"He's done a great job for us and he's a big part of this three-game winning streak we have right now," Lue said. "His defense and his deflections, it's contagious. The way he plays and plays hard, guys respect that."
Liggins has started the last two games in place of Smith, and while he has totaled just 11 points, the Cavs have produced two of their best defensive games of the season -- the 34.8 percent the Heat shot from the field was a season low for a Cavs opponent. It was also a season low for the Heat.
"Everyone's been a part of it and his energy and his effort has been a huge part of it as well," James said of Liggins. "He doesn't need much, just an opportunity and he's played great the last three games."
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game that despite his gaudy numbers, he needed more out of Whiteside. When he didn't deliver, Spoelstra benched his center early in the third quarter.
"This league is for competitors only," Spoelstra said. "I just wanted more energy, more life defending the pick-and-roll. It has nothing to do with how many touches (you get)."
Whiteside was benched after the Cavs shot 52 percent from the field in the first half, then opened the third quarter by scoring four of their first five baskets at the rim.
"He's our franchise player and we need him. When he plays like that, our chances to win are smaller," Dragic said. "It's tough when he's not at the level he can be."
Whiteside seemed blindsided by the criticism.
"I really don't know what I've got to do, man," he said. "I'm not going to lie to you all, I really don't know. I'm coming out here playing as hard as I can, putting up what I can."
Injuries and Dwyane Wade's defection in free agency have reduced the Heat to smoldering ashes, last place in their division and little hope of making the playoffs.
Udonis Haslam was a late scratch for personal reasons, wiping away the final link between James and the Heat's championship past. There was no one on the floor in a Miami jersey whom James played with -- and he only left the franchise three seasons ago.
"It does feel like a former team, but it's not many ties left besides the coaches," James said. "Without UD here, there's none of the players that I played with, so it doesn't have that feeling like that when you go out there. But it hasn't been like that for me for a little while anyways."
Former Cavs guard Dion Waiters (torn thigh muscle) was one of six injured Miami players unable to play. They began the game with just three subs, although they managed to hang around until the second half.
Irving's driving layup at the third-quarter buzzer extended the Cavs' lead to 87-69 and Lue pulled his regulars after James passed Elvin Hayes (27,313) for ninth place on the scoring list.
NOTES: F/C Channing Frye was excused from the Cavs to attend his father's funeral. Frye lost both his mother and father within a month. ... G J.R. Smith missed his second game with a hyperextended left knee, but coach Tyronn Lue believes Smith could play Saturday when the Cavs host the Charlotte Hornets. ... Before the game, G DeAndre Liggins received his championship ring from Sioux Falls, the D-League affiliate of the Heat. ... Heat F Udonis Haslam (personal reasons) was a late scratch. ... Heat C Hassan Whiteside was averaging 17.6 points and an NBA-best 14.7 rebounds before Friday's game, but coach Erik Spoelstra is still challenging him to do more. "Hassan needs to understand what he has to bring every night. If he's not giving 100 percent on every possession, he's doing a disservice to us and to himself." ... The Heat play at Chicago on Saturday.