Coach Erik Spoelstra said Hassan Whiteside was going to need to be great on most nights for the Heat to stand a chance this season.
Miami’s $98 million center was all that for 35 minutes Sunday night, matching a career high with 27 points, grabbing 15 rebounds, blocking four shots and helping the Heat overcome a 16-point, first-half deficit to stay even with the undefeated San Antonio Spurs.
Then, moments after hitting the tying hook shot with a little over five minutes to go, cramps sent the 7-footer tumbling down onto the middle of the court, halting the Heat’s momentum and eventually helping the Spurs escape with a 106-99 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena.
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If not for those cramps, who knows what might have been. Instead, Kawhi Leonard, who led the Spurs with 27 points and six assists, finished the Heat off, dropping Miami to 1-2 on this young season.
“I loved it,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside’s effort. “It just showed you how hard he was competing, and I told him that after the game. I said, ‘The reason you got the cramp is that’s probably as hard as you’ve played on both ends of the court in a regular-season game. Now that’s what this basketball team is going to need, and it will need 34 to 36 minutes of that every night.’
“Once he understands what that really means — to shoulder that kind of responsibility, being a great player,” Spoelstra said before pausing. “He’s getting it and starting to understand it. When that light bulb goes off, that’s something to see.”
Once Whiteside went down, the Spurs (4-0) took the lead for good, breaking a 91-91 tie when back up point guard Patty Mills buried a three-pointer with 4:49 to play. Miami was within a basket at 99-97 when Whiteside subbed back in for Willie Reed with 1:51 remaining.
But Leonard, who received a cut under his right eye and stitches after Tyler Johnson collided with him in the second half, quickly made it a two-score game again when he made a tough, 17-foot turnaround fadeaway in Dion Waiters’ face 10 seconds later.
“I felt bad, man,” Whiteside said afterward about his craps. “I really wanted it for the team. Those guys were playing their hearts out. [Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich came and drew up some great plays. They’re very well-coached. We’re down 16 and to come back like that, I know there’s no moral victories, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Pau Gasol had 20 points and 11 rebounds for San Antonio, which gave All-Star LeMarcus Aldridge the night off to rest a sore knee. Mills led San Antonio’s bench, which outscored the Heat’s 43-14, with 18 points.
Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow were sensational for the Heat. Dragic finished with 25 points and five assists in 34 minutes — scoring 17 after halftime. Winslow, who started 0 for 5 on field goals, had 18 points (7 of 15 on field-goal attempts) with five rebounds, two assists and a number of big defensive plays, including a big block late in the game.
“I just stayed with it,” Winslow said of his rough start that included a three-point atempt airball. “I missed a layup, a tip-in rolled out, I missed a three, and I missed a pullup — all good shots, all shots I can make. I just stuck with it, didn’t change my mechanics or anything. I just stayed with the process.”
Miami, which came in as the worst free-throw shooting team in the league (63.9 percent) after two games, missed eight of its 26 attempts (69.2 percent) from the line or it might have been closer despite Whiteside’s issue with cramps.
After falling behind 10-3 to start the game and by as many as 16 points in the second quarter, the Heat went on an 11-0 run midway through the third quarter to trim San Antonio’s lead to 64-63. Dragic scored seven points during the burst, including a blow-by layup that made it a one-point game with 4:43 to go in the third quarter.
After playing catchup all night, the Heat finally tied it at 79 when Winslow blew past his defender, hit a runner and drew the foul with 10:23 to play. Winslow, though, missed the ensuing free throw.
The Heat took its first lead since it was 3-0 when Dragic raced up the floor in transition, weaved his way to the basket and scored on a layup, drawing a foul on Kyle Anderson with 6:48 to play. Dragic missed the ensuing free throw, though, and Miami led 87-86.
The Spurs, one of the best defensive teams in the league each season, held Miami to 38.5 percent shooting in the first half and led 52-44 at the break.
The Heat often looked completely lost on offense with Dragic on the bench in the first half. At one point, things got so bad early in the second quarter forward James Johnson looked at Dion Waiters and shouted, “What the [expletive] are you running?” in the middle of a Heat possession.
Waiters finished with nine points (3-of-9 shooting), three assists and six of Miami’s 12 turnovers.
“We need to take care of business so they don’t build that lead so high and then it’s tough to follow and try to catch them,” Dragic said. “But I feel like we played — especially the second half — really well. We need to build on that and play 30 minutes like that instead of 15, 20 minutes a game.”