Playing the first game of the second half of its season, the Heat on Tuesday delivered something more impressive than anything it accomplished in the dreary first 2 ½ months of the post-Dwyane Wade era.
In a matchup of the second-highest-scoring and second-lowest-scoring teams in the league, the Heat rode a 20-5 run late in the game to surprise Houston, 109-103, providing the season’s home highlight for a Heat team that entered 5-13 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami withstood a 40-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist game from Rockets guard James Harden.
“At least it wasn’t 60,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra cracked.
Afterward, there was the type of contentment largely absent from this Heat locker-room during the drudgery of an 11-30 start.
“It felt great, getting a win like that against a team that was 32-11,” Hassan Whiteside said.
Goran Dragic said this team needed this “a lot. I am going to sleep well.”
And Spoelstra said: “You are pleased to see guys get the result from all the work we’re putting in. Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, get to work. Some of the things hurting us, we did better tonight: defending all the way through a possession. Gang rebounding. Our offensive execution — we were really working at it. They missed shots.”
The Heat, which entered ahead of only Dallas in points per game at 98.3, was buoyed by splendid work from its backcourt.
Dragic (21 points, 8 assists) and Dion Waiters (17 points) got to the rim repeatedly, and Tyler Johnson (16 points) and Wayne Ellington (18 points) helped fuel the fourth-quarter spurt.
“Lot of contributions,” Spoelstra said. “The ball generally moves now. It doesn’t stick.”
Dragic said Waiters “was great tonight. He takes a lot of pressure off me.”
Whiteside chipped in 14 points and 15 rebounds, and Miami received its usual lift from James Johnson (15 points, eight rebounds, six assists).
Spoelstra liked how James Johnson helped execute the offense in the fourth quarter: “He’s a heck of a talent. One of the great pleasant positives of this season has been our bench.”
The Rockets, who entered averaging 114.9 points (second behind Golden State), entered on pace to break NBA three-point records, with averages of 15 makes and 40 attempts per game. On Tuesday, Houston shot 9 for 39 on threes, including 3 for 19 in the second half.
Houston guard Eric Gordon shot 1 for 10 on threes.
“We were contesting [but] they missed some open threes,” Dragic said.
Harden, who entered third in the league in scoring at 28.4 per game, had another monster game but missed 18 of his 30 field goal attempts.
After Harden was awarded free throws while appearing to flop early in the game, Spoelstra yelled at the refs: “That’s bad for the game.”
Spoelstra liked how Heat forward Rodney McGruder handled the defensive assignment.
“It’s the world he knows — going against MVPs, future MVPs, all-stars every night,” Spoelstra said of McGruder. “Whoever the big ticket player is, you get him. He absolutely has stepped up to that challenge. He makes you fight for every inch he gets. He has incredible perseverance, grit. It doesn’t matter if he gets scored on. He will make you feel his presence. That annoys guys. Great, Hall of Fame players can score off him, but it’s not going to be off mistakes.”
McGruder blamed himself for “some stupid fouls on my part. He got his numbers but he worked for them.”
Down 89-88 with 7:05 left in the fourth, the Heat unleashed an 8-0 run, featuring a Willie Reed layup, a Tyler Johnson dunk off a Dragic dish in transition and a Tyler Johnson steal from Corey Brewer and uncontested layup. Throw in an Ellington free throw (resulting from a technical foul on Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni) and a Dragic free throw, and the Heat was suddenly ahead by seven.
Two threes from Ellington and another driving layup from Dragic helped finish Houston off.
Before Tuesday, Miami’s most impressive wins all season were at Memphis Nov. 25 and at Utah Dec. 1. But this one surpassed that, considering the Heat entered with the NBA’s second-worst record and the Rockets with the third-best.
“They played hard and they beat us,” D’Antoni said. “There’s not much else to say.
“It’s not real complicated,” D’Antoni added. “Their athleticism kept wearing on us all game and toward the end, it wore us down. They took advantage of it.”
▪ ESPN dropped the Jan. 27 Heat-at-Bulls game, believing a Houston-Philadelphia game will be more appealing nationally than Dwyane Wade’s third game against his former team. Fox Sports Sun will carry Heat-Bulls.