He says the record doesn’t show it, but coach Erik Spoelstra is convinced the Miami Heat has been getting better as it has suffered through its growing pains and piled up losses. The most frustrating part, Spoelstra said, is not being able to close out games.
That was the case again Friday night against the Celtics. They had Isaiah Thomas, and the Heat didn’t have an answer for him.
Boston’s 5-9, 185-point All-Star point guard scored 29 of his career-high 52 points in the fourth quarter — all but six of his team’s 35 points in the final period — lifting the Celtics to a thrilling 117-114 victory over Miami at TD Garden.
Thomas’ 29 points in the fourth quarter were two shy of the NBA record of 31 by Wilt Chamberlain in his 100-point game on March 9, 1962.
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“We’re up four with [9:27] to go and you think you’re in the driver’s seat,” Spoelstra said. “Some of those [shots Thomas made], yeah, you have to tip your hat. Now, the three [three-pointers] in a row that he hit on pick-and-rolls, where we dropped on those so he was coming off basically to a wide-open shot — that’s different. From that point on, though, I’m not sure if there’s much more we could do.
“That’s what great players do in this league. He’s one of the very best fourth-quarter players in the league for that reason. He doesn’t shy from the moment.”
Although Thomas didn’t finish with an assist (making him one of only 13 players in NBA history to do that while scoring at least 50 points), he made nine three-pointers in all and became only the seventh player to score at least 50 points against the Heat.
The others: Michael Jordan (twice, including 56 points against the Heat in a 1992 playoff game), Willie Burton, Jamal Crawford, Vince Carter, Alex English and Carmelo Anthony.
Thomas finished 15 of 26 from the field, 9 of 13 from three-point range and 13 of 13 from the free-throw line. The most impressive shot? His last: a 29-foot three-pointer with the shot clock expiring to put the Celtics ahead 111-106.
“In the fourth quarter it felt like I was in the gym by myself,” Thomas said.
For the Heat, there were no moral victories.
But there were positives: James Johnson and Tyler Johnson combined for 41 of the Heat’s 63 points off the bench, and Josh Richardson chimed in with 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists — the third game in a row he’s been in a great flow offensively.
In the end, Thomas was just too much.
The Heat wasn’t happy with the amount of times he got to the foul line and the disparity in foul calls overall. Boston finished 24 of 29 from the line, while Miami was just 7 of 10.
“He’s a great player. I love his game,” Tyler Johnson said of Thomas. “He definitely willed his team to victory. But he also got into a good rhythm there at the free-throw line. I’ll leave that alone.”
With the win, Boston (20-14) has now won six consecutive games against the Heat, including each of the first three meetings this season.
Miami (10-24) has now played in 22 games this season in which it has either been ahead or behind by five points or less with under five minutes to play in regulation (clutch situations). The Heat has lost 15 of those games, tied with the Lakers for the most in the league.
“It’s painful in our locker room,” Spoelstra said. “But we’ve said it before, experience is the best teacher, and we’re getting that experience right now.”
WHITESIDE, DRAGIC AILING
Center Hassan Whiteside could soon be joining leading scorer Goran Dragic on the injured list.
With 1:36 to play on Friday, Whiteside got poked in his right eye by Jae Crowder and didn’t return. He needed medical attention after the game.
“I can’t see anything out of it,” Whiteside said. “But I’m meeting with an eye doctor [Saturday in Miami] to see what the analysis is.”
Meanwhile, back soreness again forced Dragic out of the Heat’s lineup.
After missing Tuesday night’s game against the Thunder, Dragic struggled in Thursday’s loss in Charlotte and admitted afterward he shouldn’t have returned to action yet.
“It’s not good,” Dragic said before Friday’s game of his back. “I think it’s smarter to get better and not to hurt the team like that — to be on the court and not moving well.”