It’s going to be a wild ride right up to the very end.
The Miami Heat’s season — full of twists and turns and one of the most amazing second-half turnarounds in NBA history — still has a pulse. Barely.
The Heat rallied from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit and then survived two four-point plays in overtime to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-121 in another heart-pounding game to keep its playoff hopes alive.
“Survive and advance,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who took extra delight in Miami’s comeback, often smiling and clapping as his team rallied in the fourth quarter.
“This is what is our season has been like. We knew this was going to be tough going all the way down to the stretch and that’s one of the best regular season games certainly this year in this building. It wasn’t necessarily going our way, but our guys are so tough mentally just to persevere and show some fortitude and finally grab hold of the game.”
With Chicago blowing out Orlando at home, Indiana winning in Philadelphia and Milwaukee beating Charlotte at home Monday night, the Heat (40-41) needs to win Wednesday night’s season finale against Washington and a loss by either the Pacers or Bulls Wednesday to make the playoffs.
Chicago (40-41) hosts Brooklyn (20-61) and Indiana (41-40) hosts Atlanta (42-38). The Hawks will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back and will simply be playing for seeding. The Nets beat Chicago at home over the weekend.
If Miami wins and Chicago and Indiana both lose, the Heat would be the seventh seed in the East. If only one of those teams loses, the Heat would qualify for the playoffs as the eighth seed.
Coach Erik Spoelstra said he and his players had no idea the Bucks, Bulls and Pacers had all won while the Heat was facing elimination in overtime.
“It would have totally distracted me — especially now knowing what happened,” Spoelstra said. “I would have been going crazy. That game was enough. I don’t need the extra stress.”
Wednesday night, Tyler Johnson was the hero for Miami late. Called for a foul on Kevin Love’s four-point play (the first for Cleveland in overtime), Johnson made it up for it by burying four free throws — the last four points of the game — to propel Miami to victory.
“I remember after the Knicks game I went upstairs and I probably shot 200, 300 free throws after the game just because I didn’t want to feel that feeling again,” said Johnson, who missed three free throws in the Heat’s crippling 98-94 loss to the Knicks at home two weeks ago. “Not to say that those [extra practice] free throws are why I [made them versus the Cavs]. But I feel like I got all that out of my system.”
Johnson led Miami in scoring with 24 points off the bench, setting a franchise record for the most 20-point games off the bench in a season (eight). But he was hardly the only hero. Hassan Whiteside had 23 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks and a couple of clutch free throws late himself, and Josh Richardson had 19 points, six rebounds, four assists and five steals.
Cleveland, which fell to the No. 2 seed in the East with the loss at 51-30, played without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, who took the night off to rest after losing in overtime Sunday in Atlanta.
Deron Williams did most of the heavy lifting for Cleveland, scoring a season-high 35 points to go with seven rebounds and nine assists in a turn-back-the-clock-performance. Kevin Love had 25 points and 10 rebounds before he fouled out with 29.2 seconds left in overtime.
The Heat trailed 91-80 entering the fourth and then went on a 9-0 run that turned into a 26-8 run when Wayne Ellington buried his fourth three-pointer of the night with 5:28 to play to put Miami ahead 106-99. But the Cavs answered with a 9-0 run.
James Johnson, who had 16 points and nine assists before he fouled in overtime, drove inside the paint and made a basket which would have put the Heat up 110-108 with 11.7 seconds left. But he was called for an offensive foul. The Cavs got the ball and turned it over with under three seconds to play, but the Heat never got a shot off before the end of regulation.
“I was thinking about it,” Spoelstra said of calling a time out. “I was out there. But it was open court. I had visions of another shot from my first year of one of our former players on another team. I had a vision of that. It would have been perfect. Right there and let it go and jump on the table. It was right about the same spot. But, yeah, I probably should have called time out.”
With Monday’s win, the Heat avoided its fourth consecutive home loss and the fifth in their last six home games. They also avoided postseason elimination.
Now, a fourth opportunity to reach .500 this season awaits. If the Heat sweeps the season series with the Wizards, Miami would become the first team in NBA history to reach .500 after being 19 games under during the season.
“Win or go home really,” Richardson said. “I don’t know how it works, but we might win and have to go home anyway. We just have to go out and give everything. That’s the only way we know how to do it.”