Goran Dragic said there was only one way the Miami Heat could kick-start its six-game homestand.
“We need to come out strong,” he said after Monday morning’s shoot-around.
Dragic led the charge, scoring a season-high 34 points — the most he’s ever scored in a Heat uniform — as Miami put an end to its five-game losing streak with a 112-101 victory over the Washington Wizards.
“An extra body in there with JJ [James Johnson] and a deeper rotation, and yet guys were still spent,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team improved to 3-8 at home and picked up its first win at AmericanAirlines Arena since Nov. 17 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
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“They don’t have much left after that game and that’s what it’s about in this league – competition and laying it all out on the line for your teammates and you live with the results,” he continued. “Our guys did that.”
After playing the last week on the road severely short-handed by injuries, Miami (8-17) welcomed James Johnson and Luke Babbitt back from the wounded list. Babbitt didn’t play, but Johnson picked up right where he left off after a strained right rotator cuff forced him out for four games.
He scored 14 of the Heat’s 36 bench points in 30 stellar minutes including the entire fourth quarter when coach Erik Spoelstra used Johnson at center and a four-guard lineup for the first eight-plus minute.
That lineup offset all the good John Wall and Bradley Beal had done for Washington (9-14) erasing an 11-point third quarter deficit and grabbing an 82-81 lead heading to the fourth. Beal and Wall combined 59 points for the Wizards, who scored 56 points in the paint but fell to 2-8 on the road.
“We made it coming out of training camp, we just never got to it,” Spoelstra said of the lineup with Johnson at center surrounded by Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Josh Richardson and then Wayne Ellington before center Hassan Whiteside, who finished with 17 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks in 33 minutes, finally re-entered the game with 3:18 remaining.
“This was just born out of necessity in this game.”
Dragic (13), James Johnson (10), and Tyler Johnson (2) combined for 25 of the Heat’s 31 fourth quarter points and played the entire fourth quarter.
“It's tough to have the ball in your hands for 48 minutes and then you need to guard John Wall or somebody else,” Dragic said of what the Heat’s small fourth quarter lineup with Johnson at center did for him. “When I set the screen for him and he runs inside and he throws it back, I'm wide open. Most of those shots, I don't get those shots if I'm handling the ball. Me, it gives me different shots – and for the team.”
The night might have gone easier for the Heat had Dragic not picked up his fourth foul with 10:28 to play in the third quarter trying to get back on defense after a turnover. The foul all but killed the Heat’s momentum.
“I need to be smarter on that play,” Dragic said.
After Miami extended its lead to 68-57 on a Whiteside free throw with 8:31 left in the quarter, the Heat offense began to sputter and the Wizards went on a 19-5 run to take the lead behind Beal and Wall.
But the Heat wasn’t going to lose on this night and Dragic had a lot to do with it.
“He’s definitely a handful,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said of the Heat’s point guard. “We tried to go small, we tried to go big and we switched a lot and he was just in attack-mode. And he was making his jump shots.”
Spoelstra said Dragic has been playing well “for a couple weeks now.” Since coming back from a sprained elbow, Dragic has averaged 23.1 points and 7.6 assists over his last nine games.
“We haven’t talked, but we’ve been putting more responsibility on his shoulders,” Spoelstra said. “He’s accepted all of that. He’s tireless. He’s in such great shape right now, he’s confident and he’s comfortable. Guys want him to make plays for the team. Like I said, we want to keep him in this place.”
Dragic does too.
“We had a tough road trip,”Dragic said. “We know this is it, this losing streak at home, this needs to end. We need to be a better home team. Spo was really emphasizing that before the game – we need to compete for each other. Everybody was focused and everybody was dialed in. I think it was a huge thing for us. As long as we play our game and everybody is in the same page, then it's much easier.”