The Heat could have ended Friday with a one-game lead atop the Eastern Conference for the first time this season.
Instead, this was a night of squandered opportunities, near misses and frayed nerves, with the Heat ultimately undone by three missed clutch free throws, a bunch of defensive breakdowns and several agonizing stretches of offensive inefficiency.
This riveting, exhausting and at times exasperating 122-121 double-overtime loss to the visiting Timberwolves snapped Miami’s four-game winning streak and left the Heat merely percentage points ahead of Indiana, which lost at Toronto, in the battle for first place in the Eastern Conference.
“We had many opportunities to close the game out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra lamented.
With a chance to put the Heat ahead, Mario Chalmers missed the first free throw and made the second on two occasions — once with 3.9 seconds left in regulation and the other time with 1.9 seconds left in the first overtime.
“I always pride myself on being a clutch player,” said Chalmers, who made 8 of 10 free throws. “I let my team down.”
Then, in the second overtime, LeBron James missed the first of two free throws with 16.2 seconds left and the Heat down two.
A Chris Bosh three-pointer tied the score with 11 seconds left in that second OT, but Corey Brewer put the Wolves ahead to stay when he took a lob pass from Kevin Love, was fouled and hit the first of two free throws, leaving Minnesota ahead 122-121 with 1.4 seconds left.
After a timeout, Ray Allen took an inbounds pass and missed an off-balance, 22-foot heave just before the buzzer, and Minnesota escaped.
James said it was “a little frustrating not being able to get the last shot” and referenced the fact that he didn’t get the last shot recently against Indiana, either.
But as far as the game goes, “I’m not disappointed at all,” James said. “We had so many opportunities to win. They had so many opportunities to win. It was a good, hard-fought win for them.”
James finished with 34 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals, and Chalmers and Bosh each scored 24 points. But the Heat couldn’t slow down Love, who had 28 points and 11 rebounds. And Miami shot just 37.9 percent with 11 turnovers in the second half and two overtimes.
“Weird game,” Bosh said. “We had chance after chance. It just seems like this is how the season is going. … I’ll let it go. I’m over it,” he said of failing to capitalize on Indiana’s loss.
The Heat never trailed in the second overtime until Love’s three-pointer, following a missed Bosh three-pointer, put Minnesota ahead 119-117 with 30 seconds left.
The lead swung back and forth several times in the first overtime. Love’s turnaround over Bosh put Minnesota up one with 14.9 seconds left in the first OT. After a timeout, James dribbled for 12 seconds before passing to Chalmers, who was fouled on a drive to the basket.
But just as he did in the final seconds of regulation, Chalmers missed the first free throw and made the second, leaving the game tied. And just as he did at the end of the fourth quarter, Love missed a long jumper that could have won it. Love’s turnaround was more difficult than his attempt at the end of regulation, which rimmed out.
The Heat entered Friday having won 11 of its past 12 when it played without Dwyane Wade, who missed his 24th game of the season and fifth in a row as he recovers from a hamstring injury.
Besides Wade, Greg Oden also missed his fifth consecutive game with back spasms. But the Heat welcomed back Allen after a five-game absence because of a stomach flu, and he scored 10 points.
Minnesota, meanwhile, was without its second- and third-leading scorers: guard Kevin Martin and center Nikola Pekovic.
Down by 10 in the first half, Minnesota surged ahead by as many as nine in the third quarter, with Love scoring 11 and James 14 in the period.
After a James layup with 31 seconds left in regulation pulled Miami to within one, James stripped Chase Budinger with 11.7 seconds to go, and Chalmers was fouled by J.J. Barea on a missed floater with 3.7 seconds remaining. But Chalmers missed the first three throw before making the second. And Love’s three over Bosh rimmed out at the buzzer, sending it to overtime.
This was a bittersweet night for Chalmers, who missed the two clutch free throws but generally balanced discipline with aggression, snaking to the basket several times and finishing 7 for 14 from the field with six rebounds and six assists.
There was the usual jolt of energy from Chris Andersen, who had eight points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes.
Playing against the league’s fourth-highest scoring team, Miami had numerous defensive breakdowns, especially in the second and third quarters.
“It looks like this thing is going down to the wire, so we might as well have fun with it,” Bosh said of the battle with Indiana for the top seed in the conference.