It was more about desperation than innovation, but if the Heat actually holds on this season for a spot in the playoffs — any spot — this game will stand out against all the rest.
There have been improbable victories for the Heat this season, including last week in Boston without Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside and Chris Andersen.
But Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena was different. Consider the injuries the Heat overcame in its 109-102 victory against the Detroit Pistons:
▪ For starters, Whiteside and Andersen once again were unavailable and seated next to Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts on the Heat’s bench. Bosh and McRoberts, of course, are out for the season.
▪ If you’re counting, that group represents four-fifths of the Heat’s would-be power rotation, leaving only Udonis Haslem to do battle inside against the Pistons’ formidable front line led by center Andre Drummond.
Haslem, by the way, entered the game also in pain but said his own “bumps and bruises” didn’t account for much compared to the injuries of his teammates. For example: Wade’s left knee.
▪ In addition to a lack of big men inside, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t know if Wade could play until a few hours before the game. The shooting guard had fluid drained from his left knee on Saturday night.
But all of those lineup limitations were before the game. It got worse.
At halftime, Luol Deng was ruled out with a knee injury, and Michael Beasley couldn’t continue because of an injury to his elbow.
The Heat led by five points at halftime, with reserve forward James Ennis pushed into service for Deng and Spoelstra out of options at backup power forward and backup center.
Under those circumstances, Wade and Haslem, longtime captains both, willed the Heat to an unlikely victory amid a playoff race that might not be determined until the final game of the season.
Wade played like a Hall of Famer fighting for a chance to compete in the postseason. He finished with 40 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter.
Haslem was the game’s other star. He had season highs in points (18) and rebounds (13), and finished off the Pistons late in the fourth quarter with an emphatic baseline dunk.
Fittingly, Wade assisted on the play with a dazzling pass in traffic.
“We needed that,” Wade said. “I was a little shocked when I spun, but Drummond took a step up and U.D. made a great cut at the right time and got a wide-open dunk. So, that was kind of the moment that gave us a little bit more comfort.”
Wade’s 19 points in the fourth quarter included a perfect effort from the free-throw line — 11 of 11 — as Pistons coach and former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy tried to extend the game.
The Heat started the second half with one healthy big man, Haslem, and finished it still clinging to seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings and that projected first-round series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Our two co-captains really led us and set the tone at halftime once we knew Luol and Michael were going to be out in the second half, and we didn’t have Hassan and Bird,” Spoelstra said. “They didn’t take a step back. We went in with the mentality that we have to play 24 minutes and find a way to win. They did it with their actions.”
More specifically, they did it with forward Henry Walker at backup center in the second half and giving up 60 pounds and five inches to the Pistons’ Drummond.
They did it with Wade playing some power forward against Pistons veteran Tayshaun Prince.
They did it with reserve rookie Ennis starting the second half for Deng and tying a season high for points with 16.
“James’ minutes were critical,” Spoelstra said. “We said coming into the game that we would need 25 rebounds from our perimeter players, and we ended up getting 27. James was pivotal in that area.”
So was guard Mario Chalmers, who tied a career high with nine rebounds. Ennis, for his part, had six rebounds. Wade also had six.
“It’s just being strong-willed,” Wade said. “We didn’t have that many guys coming into the game, and then we lost two coming out of halftime. You have to do what you have to do, and we had to get a win here at home. It’s going to be tougher on the road.”
Miami (34-39) took control early in the fourth quarter when Chalmers made a corner three-pointer to give the Heat an 80-71 lead, and then Walker, technically playing center, stepped out and drained a three-pointer from the other corner.
The back-to-back baskets put the Heat ahead by 12 points with 9:02 left and forced Van Gundy to call a timeout and adjust to Miami’s small lineup.
▪ In addition to Haslem’s season high in points, he also recorded a double-double in points (10) and rebounds (10) in the first half of a game for the first time since April 3, 2010.
▪ Wade’s 19 points in the fourth quarter put him in the lead among the league’s fourth-quarter scorers. Wade is averaging 7.3 points in the fourth quarters of games.