The Miami Heat beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 123-105 and moved into a playoff spot on Friday night for the first time since it began its amazing turnaround.
But the Heat lost Dion Waiters to a sprained left ankle in the process.
Waiters, who has been as big a key as anyone to the Heat’s turnaround following an 11-30 start, had to be carried off the court by his teammates late in the first half when he landed awkwardly after being fouled by Andrew Wiggins on his way to the basket.
The Heat said X-rays on Waiters’ ankle were negative and coach Erik Spoelstra said there’s no timeline yet for when the team’s third-leading scorer and starting shooting guard will return. When Waiters sprained the same ankle last month in a win at Minnesota he missed three games.
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“I was hanging out with him a little bit in the training room,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a sprained ankle, same left ankle that he sprained in Minnesota. So I don’t know what his problem is with Minnesota, but he sprained it similar to the way he did last time. There’s no timeline on it. There’s no way to really tell until we get to the next day.”
With Waiters out, Miami rode Hassan Whiteside (23 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks), Tyler Johnson (23 points, three assists), Goran Dragic (19 points, 10 assists, three steals) and James Johnson (17 points, two rebounds, six assists) to its 23rd victory in its past 28 games on Friday night, pulling away late from a talented, young Timberwolves team which had won eight of its past 13 games, including victories over the Clippers, Warriors and Wizards.
Miami (34-35) shot 64.3 percent and led 64-49 at the half before Minnesota (28-40) rallied to trim the Heat’s lead to 74-71 with 4:28 left in the third quarter. But Tyler Johnson scored 15 points in the third and never allowed Wiggins (26 points, three rebounds) and Karl-Anthony Towns (31 points, 11 rebounds) to draw Minnesota any closer.
Whiteside then took over in the fourth quarter, dominating in the paint. He recorded his 11th consecutive double-double to tie Rony Seikaly for the franchise record.
“A lot of resolve has been built and the confidence we have is because of what we’ve had to deal with this year,” Spoelstra said of the Heat, which has dealt with more games lost to injury than any other team in the league this season.
“We’ve had this basically all year long. Somebody’s out, next man up. Our guys don’t blink at things like this. It’s unfortunate. You felt the crowd, that’s how we felt. But you have to move on and focus at the task at hand, and our guys have developed that kind of resolve. Tyler and J.J. have been a major part of our improvement in the second half of the season on both ends of the court. But with that second unit, they create a lot of actions and triggers for us. Tyler knew that he would have to step up and make some plays for us, and he did.”
With Friday’s win, Miami moved a full game ahead of the Pistons (33-36) for the eighth seed in the East. The Heat could have climbed to as high as the seventh seed if the Bucks lost to the Lakers later Friday in Los Angeles, but Milwaukee won so Miami is eighth going into Saturday’s action.
But nobody in the postgame locker room seemed too excited about that.
“I appreciate it,” James Johnson said. “We all do. But I don’t think we’re done yet, and I don’t think [making] the bracket was what our goal was.”
Said Whiteside: “Let’s just keep working. It’s like lifting weights. You start looking in the mirror, you start seeing muscles, you know you still got to keep lifting weights to keep that body. That’s how I’m looking at it, it looks good but we still got more work to do.”
That work could include not having Waiters around for a while. His teammates said the swelling in his ankle was pretty bad and Waiters will likely require an MRI once the swelling goes down.
Not only is he the team’s third-leading scorer, but Waiters is also averaging 4.4 assists and shooting 39.5 percent for the season from three-point range. The Heat is 27-19 in the games he has played in.
“Of course he’s vital,” Dragic said. “But we’re already a proven team. We went through a lot of injuries and everybody stepped in and did their job amazing. We feel comfortable with this team without players, and of course we want Dion to come back soon, to get healthy. But we have enough guys. They’re going to step in.”
Said James Johnson: “When things like that happen to a player that’s so integral to what we’re doing right now it’s tough. But we’re all in regardless of what happens. We don’t make excuses. I think that toughness we built just carries on.”