Alvin Gentry wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Goran Dragic back in a Heat uniform on Wednesday night.
“I coached him for four years [in Phoenix],” New Orleans’ coach said of the Heat’s starting point guard, who missed Sunday’s game in Indiana with cartoonish swelling in his right eye after being elbowed by the Raptors’ Cory Joseph on Saturday night. “He’s one of the toughest guys in the league.”
The Heat’s little tough guy didn’t just put on a uniform. He balled out.
Dragic scored 33 points, one shy of his season high, and picked up his only two assists in the fourth quarter on pivotal back-to-back three-pointers by James Johnson as the surging Heat hung on to beat New Orleans 120-112 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
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By the end of the third quarter, fans were chanting “M-V-P!” as Dragic stood at the free throw line.
What did it feel like?
“Like D-Wade was here,” Dragic said with a grin, referring to former Heat star Dwyane Wade. “I immediately looked around. That’s great [to hear the MVP chants]. But I’m just here to play.”
Wednesday’s victory temporarily moved the Heat (33-35) into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference for the first time since the team began its surge following a dreadful 11-30 start. But Milwaukee’s 97-96 win over the Clippers in Los Angeles late Wednesday night moved the Bucks (33-34) into seventh place in the East and bumped the Heat back into ninth in the conference.
Though Detroit (33-35) and Chicago (32-36) both lost Wednesday to help the Heat’s cause, the Pistons own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Miami 2-1 with one meeting left on March 28 in Detroit. Therefore, the Pistons currently own the eighth seed.
“[The eighth seed is] ours to lose at this point,” said Heat guard Josh Richardson, whose second three-pointer of the night — and the 13th for the Heat — eventually put Miami ahead for good 105-102 with 5:36 remaining. “I think we’ve played ourselves into a good position, and we just can’t rely on what the other guys are doing. A lot of teams might get into looking at the standings, hoping teams lose and stuff like that. But we’ve just got to do what we do.”
Miami made 16 three-pointers for the game and eventually pulled away from the Pelicans (27-41) and their All-Star frontcourt pairing of Anthony Davis (27 points, eight rebounds) and DeMarcus Cousins (19 points, nine rebounds) because of it.
E’Twaun Moore scored 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and led an 8-0 Pelicans run to help them take the lead midway through the fourth. But Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson responded with back-to-back three-pointers.
Ellington made five three-pointers — as many as Dragic — and had 19 points in 22 minutes off the bench.
Hassan Whiteside chipped in with 20 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. Whiteside finished plus-11 for the game.
James Johnson was a team-best plus-14 and had 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes off the bench.
“Hassan is making such great strides on being a winning basketball player,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And he’s impacting the game in so many different ways. He’s so unique. When he brings that passion like you saw in the second half and in the fourth quarter, there’s not many guys like him. When you’re facing a frontline like that, they typically have an advantage over every single team they play against at those two positions, so they’re very unique.
“But Hassan is a great anchor and then James Johnson continues to show his versatility and how important that is for this basketball team on both ends of the court. Yes, he hit the big threes. But he took the challenge of guarding [Cousins and Davis]. Basically, all the minutes he was out there, he was guarding one of those two guys. To be able to have a wing player step up to that kind of challenge says a lot about him.”
The Heat led 45-31 midway through the second quarter in large part because Ellington came off the bench and started burying threes. He made three in the first half and had 11 points. But the Heat’s 14-point cushion quickly evaporated after an 11-0 Pelicans run.
Miami went into the half up only 54-52 despite shooting 50 percent and holding New Orleans to 38.3 percent shooting. That’s because Davis scored nine of his 15 first-half points at the free-throw line. He finished 13 of 18 from the line, getting one fewer attempt than the Heat (16 of 19).
Cousins was slapped with his league-leading 19th technical foul of the season with 3:32 left in the opening quarter. It’s the most technicals in the league since Rasheed Wallace in 2006-07.
But the story was Dragic. He made his first shot — a three-pointer — and had 12 points in the first quarter and 17 at the half on 6-of-8 shooting. He then scored 16 points in the third quarter.
“They were deserved,” guard Dion Waiters said of the MVP chants for Dragic. “He played his [expletive] off. We expect that. He’s been doing it all year. It’s not surprising.”
Said Whiteside: “I was chanting with them. I’m glad to have the Dragon back.”
The Heat continues its five-game homestand on Friday night against Minnesota.