Winning in San Antonio has been a near mission impossible for the Heat over the years.
Miami’s misery continued Monday night despite a physical, collective defensive performance in the second half, a season-high 27 points from Dion Waiters and 23 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks from Hassan Whiteside.
Led by Kawhi Leonard’s 22 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, the Spurs sent the Heat to a fifth consecutive loss for the first time since 2011 with a 94-90 victory at the AT&T Center. But coach Erik Spoesltra sounded a lot more positive after this loss than Saturday’s at home to the Jazz, when Heat players were questioning their effort and trying to find answers.
“The second half was probably one of our better defensive halves,” said Spoelstra, whose team held San Antonio to 26.2 percent shooting (11 of 42) and forced 11 turnovers over the final two quarters, nearly trimming an 18-point first half deficit to as little as four points with under two minutes to play.
“That's about as hard and connected as we've competed on that end against a very good, well-schooled offensive team. They made us pay for every single mistake. But our guys were real dialed in and connected defensively.
“We didn't necessarily focus on forcing turnovers, but it's about a disposition about being aggressive, getting into an opposition, making them feel you on every single possession. We were doing things correctly. We were competing pretty hard the first half. But they didn't really feel us. They didn't really feel an urgency and a toughness and a collective disposition that they felt in the second half. That's going to be a requirement for us.”
In the end, though, the Heat (2-7) shot only 43.5 percent and couldn’t get the big shots when it needed.
“That allowed us to get some in the open court, which we talked about.”
After a Whiteside hook shot with 1:56 remaining trimmed the Spurs lead to 87-83, Tyler Johnson and Waiters each missed open shots on the Heat’s next two possessions before a Josh Richardson turnover with 26.5 seconds left basically sealed the Heat’s fate.
Had Miami (2-7) had a better night at the free throw line it might have completed one of its best comeback victories in team history. The Heat, which came in as the second-worst free throw shooting team in the league at 68.5 percent, finished 12-of-21 from the stripe and shot 4-of-16 from three-point range.
“This is where you just cannot get obsessed with the result because offensively we did some very good things,” said Spoelstra, who was happy the Heat outscored San Antonio 48-20 in the paint, but lamented the missed layups on a night the team shot 24 of 47 in the paint.
“We missed a bunch at the rim that maybe changed the complexion of the game, but the ball was moving. We did get to a better pace. We were able to push and get some opportunities in the open court. I liked the execution much better. We just fell short. Right now we've got to continue to put together these building blocks.”
Waiters, who scored just four points in Toronto, two in Oklahoma City and four versus the Jazz on Saturday, scored 18 points in the second half for the Heat and finished with three assists, two steals and a block. His aggressiveness helped key the Heat’s comeback.
“I can’t keep letting guys down,” he said. “I told myself when I turn the corner, if they switch on me and put a big [on me], I’m going all the way to the basket. Worst case scenario, I miss a layup and I got a big fella right there to clean up all the boards. Hassan is always telling me to be aggressive. He thinks I can go in there and shoot 40 layups. That’s what I tried to do, man, just be aggressive.
“You make some and you miss some. I just got to continue to stay in that attack mode and continue to put pressure on guys. I feel as though at the beginning of the year, I’ve been kind of just playing within the system. But I got to be who I am – that’s aggressive and just make plays for my teammates also.”
Derrick Williams replaced three-point specialist Luke Babbitt in the Heat’s starting lineup at power forward.
Williams, who had played only three minutes in the Heat’s first seven games before breaking out with 11 points, four rebounds and an assist over 20 minutes in Saturday’s loss to the Jazz, finished with five points, one rebound and a steal in 15 minutes. Babbitt played seven minutes off the bench and didn’t take a shot.
Now, the Heat heads home to host the Atlanta Hawks (7-2) on Tuesday night. It’s the first time this season Miami has played a back-to-back.
“Guys came out here and battled,” Whiteside said. “We’re better than our record. We’re still a top five defensive team. We were pushing the ball, pushing the pace more. We’re just going to keep fighting.”