It used to be that when the Heat jumped out to big leads against young teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, they could put it on cruise control and coast.
Saturday night provided yet another reminder why this is a new era, new team, with a bunch of new moving parts for the Heat.
Led by husky 6-11, 295-pound center Nikola Pekovic and a cast of virtual no-names, the T’Wolves dominated the boards, scored a bunch of second-chance points and trimmed a 16-point Heat lead in the fourth quarter to just two baskets with about four minutes to go.
Luckily for the Heat, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still around. Bosh scored 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and Wade led the team with 25 points and eight assists as the Heat held on for a 102-92 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena to snap a two-game slide.
“This is a team that — we’re learning how to win together,” said Wade, who along with Bosh combined to score the Heat’s final 12 points to salt away the game. “Right now no lead is safe until we really learn how to win ballgames. But we took a good step tonight.”
Miami (4-2) led by as many as 20 points in the first half and came out blazing, making 11 of its first 13 shots from the field. After averaging just 17.5 assists in their back-to-back losses to Houston and Charlotte earlier this week, the Heat had 18 assists by halftime as nine different scorers got involved and the ball flowed freely in Miami’s offense.
The Heat finished with 26 assists in the game and had four scorers in double digits. Luol Deng had 14 points, three rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals on 6-of-9 shooting — a vast improvement over his last two games. Norris Cole added 11 points and six assists.
Udonis Haslem made his season debut midway through the first quarter and scored on his first shot, a reverse layup on an assist from Norris Cole. Haslem, who missed the first five games of the season with a strained left quad, finished with eight points and six rebounds, providing help inside.
“For three quarters of the game I really liked our disposition defensively and the commitment to moving the ball,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “After coming off the last two games where we had 19 assists, 16 assists we really had to try to make the game easier for each other, get the ball moving side to side. I thought the guys really improved in that area.
“Defensively, it was pretty good except for the second chance opportunity. They’re a big team and they beat us up in the paint. And we’ll need to do a better job of that. But overall a good team win. It’s good to have UD out there, too.”
Eventually offensive rebounding and second-chance points helped the T’Wolves creep back into the game. Minnesota finished with 17 offensive rebounds, 25 second-chance points and scored 48 points in the paint.
A 12-0 run in the fourth quarter capped by a pair of Kevin Martin three-pointers trimmed the Heat lead to 90-86 with 4:28 left. But the T’Wolves didn’t get any closer.
Wade hit a jumper over No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins with three minutes left to put Miami up six. He then split Wiggins and Pekovic for a two-handed dunk with 1:55 left to put Miami ahead 98-90.
“That’s probably where we feel most comfortable,” Spoelstra said of being a tight fight late in the game. “At least there we know where the ball is going and what we want to do. Guys feel comfortable how we want to defend in those situations. Really, it’s can we get consistency throughout the game?...”
The Heat now heads to Dallas Sunday to play the third back-to-back of the season. Miami has won six in a row against the Mavericks in their place.
Bosh said there is a lot for the Heat to keep working on — particularly transition defense.
“We had the lead, but I felt the whole time we were going through the motions — especially me,” Bosh said. “It’s just tough when you’re playing a lot of games. It’s kind of hitting us in the chin early. Luckily we were at home, had our crowd behind us and did a decent job on defense and we just let them back in the game with the second-chance opportunities. With that said, we need to really focus on making stops, getting back in transition, stopping them and cleaning up the glass.”