Maybe a little anger is what this team needed to kick-start its push for the postseason.
Locked in a struggle for the playoffs, the Heat got physical with the Phoenix Suns on Monday at AmericanAirlines Arena. There were multiple ejections, a wrestling match involving two 7-footers and hard fouls aplenty. Oh, and also this: the Heat’s first home victory against a team in the Western Conference since the beginning of November.
It was fight night at the arena by the bay, and the Heat defeated the Suns 115-98. The emotions were thick for the first game between Heat point guard Goran Dragic and his old team, and three players — two Suns, and Heat center Hassan Whiteside — were ejected from the game.
“Sometimes you have to win ugly,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Now 2-8 at home against Western Conference opponents, the Heat can steal another victory against the West on Wednesday when the struggling Los Angeles Lakers come to town. With a pileup of six teams within two games of each other in the Eastern Conference all fighting for the seventh and eighth playoff spots, the Heat (26-33) needs every win possible at this point.
On Saturday, the Heat played like a team bereft of any team chemistry. Two nights later, a team still learning how to play together willed itself to victory. The Heat shot 52.4 percent and 7 of 14 from three-point range while limiting the Suns to 42.3 percent shooting. The final 23 games will feel this way — wild swings of momentum and emotions. Drama like this in March is something this city hasn’t experienced in several years. In years past, things didn’t get interesting until May.
“That’s what the playoffs is all about, physical-ness,” Heat guard Mario Chalmers said. “Tonight was a good taste of what we got to be ready for, especially against Eastern Conference teams.”
Dragic’s three-pointer from Tyler Johnson with 4:33 left gave the Heat a 102-89 lead. Dragic then swished another three-pointer with 2:36 to play that put the Heat ahead by 17 points. Blowout victories at home have been few this season, and the arena danced and celebrated on the Heat’s first “NBA Noche Latina” date of the season. The Heat wore jerseys that read “El Heat” and Phoenix donned “Los Suns” tops.
Dragic scored 21 points against his old team despite playing just 15 minutes (foul trouble), and Johnson led the Heat with 26 points, going 10 of 13 from the field and 3 of 3 from three-point range in 26 minutes despite playing on a sprained ankle in the second half. It was a career-high for Johnson, who began the season with the Heat’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
Suns player Markieff Morris was the first to be ejected following a hard foul on former teammate Dragic under the basic. Morris hit Dragic in the head, and the Heat’s new point guard went sprawling dangerously to the ground. Instead of calming down after Morris’ ejection, the game only became more physical.
Tempers had been simmering between Whiteside and Suns center Alex Len since the beginning of the game. The two players locked arms momentarily after the Heat’s first basket, a dunk by Whiteside on Len less than a minute into the game. The wayward elbows and hard fouls continued until the third quarter when Whiteside dunked on Len again.
Whiteside’s elbow came down Len, and Len took offense, slinging Whiteside to the ground. Whiteside then went after Len’s legs and took the Suns center to the floor. Both players were ejected following a review.
“I just retaliated,” Whiteside said. “I shouldn’t have retaliated. I should have just walked away, but when you’re in the Heat of the moment …After I came down on him, after I dunked on him, I guess he felt like my arm hit him in the face.”
Whiteside finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. From the beginning of the game, the Heat’s guards made a point to get the Heat’s young center involved in the offense. That wasn’t the case Saturday in the team’s loss to the Hawks.
“I’m starting to realize a lot more teams are being physical with me, and I’m down for it,” Whiteside said. “That’s what I lift weights for.”
In all, six players scored in double figures for the Heat. Dwyane Wade had 16 points, four rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Luol Deng had 12 points. Michael Beasley had six rebounds off the bench.
▪ Brandon Knight, the former Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest star, had 13 points and seven assists. Knight is now with his third NBA team in his first four seasons in the NBA. He was sent to Phoenix at the trade line in a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks seen as a cost-saving measure. It was particularly frustrating for Knight, considering he is having the best season of his career, and the Bucks appear to be heading to the playoffs.
“I can’t explain it to you,” Knight said. “I’m pretty sure it was a business decision on their part, just based on the circumstances. But for me it’s about moving forward. … I did my job while I was there, got better, played my butt off. So for myself, I know that things will come full circle.
“And as you guys know, and speculate, there’s plenty of reasons for why they did what they did.”