Energy, that’s all Udonis Haslem asked of his team before the game.
Pride, that’s what fueled him in the third and fourth quarters.
Victory, that’s what the Heat had to have to remain in this playoff race, and that’s what this desperate collection of players, many of them playing hurt or injured, earned on Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The 105-100 win against the Charlotte Hornets, which coach Erik Spoelstra called “the biggest game of the year,” snapped a three-game losing streak and pulled the Heat (35-43) to within half a game of the Boston Celtics for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
At ninth in the East, the Heat moved to within half a game ahead of the Indiana Pacers, but Miami must now prepare for a difficult test against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday. After that, the Toronto Raptors come to town Saturday. Both of those playoff-bound teams will be angling to move up in the standings as well. In other words, it doesn’t get any easier for the Heat.
How they feel now, that’s how hard we have to compete,” Spoelstra said.
Haslem’s gritty performance in the second half came on a night when Heat center Chris Andersen was limited by a foot injury and Heat center Hassan Whiteside struggled because of a combination of aggravated stitches in his right hand and foul trouble.
“U.D. made the Game 7-type plays in the second half, the defensive-type tough plays,” Spoelstra said. “When the game becomes fierce like that, the guy you want in your corner is U.D.”
Whiteside has been playing with stitches between his middle and right fingers, and he was held out of Sunday’s loss in Indiana to allow his injury time to heal. He played tentatively at times against the Hornets, especially on a key defensive possession late in the fourth quarter when he failed to defend a dunk from his position on the weak side.
“They would have just called another foul on me,” said Whiteside, before offering another, somewhat more reasonable response. “I consider myself a pretty good shot blocker. If I felt like I could have blocked it, I would have blocked it.”
It was an obvious breakdown in a tight game with playoff implications, and even Chris Bosh jumped out his seat on the bench after the play to correct the mistake.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be demonstrative,” Bosh joked after the game.
Whiteside had 12 points, eight rebounds and five fouls in 22 minutes. He noted that his stitches opened up again during the game, and that the number of stitches in his hand is now down to seven. Three of the original 10 have fallen out during games.
“At this point, it’s doesn’t even matter anymore,” Whiteside said. “We won.”
The Heat went ahead by eight points with 1:37 to play on a 15-foot jumper by point guard Goran Dragic, who had 11 points in the fourth quarter. Dragic finished with 28 points, five assists and four rebounds. A basket by Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, and then a turnover by Dwyane Wade, made the ending more stressful than it needed to be, but Luol Deng drilled a clutch 17-footer to give the Heat a six-point lead with 38 seconds left.
Wade had 19 points and Deng, playing with a sprained knee, had 21 points and six rebounds.
After Deng’s basket, Walker missed a pair of free throws to ease the tension in the building.
Gerald Henderson had 29 points for the Hornets, who played without star power forward Al Jefferson. Jefferson’s knee sprain didn’t give the Heat much of an advantage, though. Hornets center Bismack Biyombo, playing with a broken nose, had 12 rebounds and 12 points, and forward Marvin Williams had eight points and 13 rebounds.
Andersen was limited to 13 minutes because of his sprained foot. He had six points and two rebounds and noted after the game that his foot “hurt.”
How much? “A lot,” he said.
The Heat isn’t big on excuses or self-pity, and that attitude resonates throughout the locker room from Wade and Haslem, who have led by example despite injuries over the past two weeks. It was Haslem who celebrated with a snarl rather than a smile when Dragic made a key basket late, and it was Wade screaming at himself after a turnover in the final seconds. The co-captains want a spot in the playoffs badly, and it showed when it mattered most.
“You got to have pride,” Wade said. “When we walk in here, no matter what, we still got that Heat on our jersey.”