How hard is it to erase a 21-point, third-quarter deficit in the NBA?
The Miami Heat made it look easy Sunday night.
Behind 25 points and 15 rebounds from center Hassan Whiteside, a huge lift from Justise Winslow, Mario Chalmers and the bench, and a fiery halftime speech from co-captain Udonis Haslem, the Heat roared back to beat James Harden and the Houston Rockets, 109-89, in one of the wildest, most memorable comebacks in franchise history.
How wild was it? Only two other times has the Heat (2-1) overcome bigger deficits: 27 points at Cleveland on March 20, 2013 and 25 points vs. Boston on March 16, 2006.
“Usually coach gives us a few minutes before he comes in at halftime,” Haslem said. “There were a few moments of silence. I just had so much built in inside of me it just kind of erupted. And it just comes out the way it comes out.
“You might not like what I'm going to say but you’re going to respect it and you’re going to listen because I’m always going to keep it real.”
Haslem, who said he slammed bottles on the ground and estimated that his speech was ‘about 75 percent’ profanity-laced, never got into the game for the Heat. But his words carried weight.
Whiteside, like Haslem had so many times before him, carried it out on the defensive end. With a cut over his left eye that stung him all game and required four stitches after the game, Miami’s young 7-foot center said he told his teammates to press up on Houston’s shooters and “let them beat us in the paint.”
The Rockets — minus center Dwight Howard and power forward Terrance Jones — couldn’t do it.
After making nine of their first 20 three-point attempts in building a 63-44 halftime lead, Houston made just 1 of 16 from long-distance the rest of the way and was outscored in the paint 62-40. Harden, the player’s choice last season for MVP, finished 2 of 15 from the field with only 16 points.
Miami, meanwhile, found its offense in the second half. After shooting only 40 percent from the field and missing its first 10 three-point attempts, the Heat buried nine of 12 from beyond the arc in the second half and outscored Houston 65-26.
Whiteside did his damage with a series of dunks on lobs from Dwyane Wade, who added 20 points and eight assists of his own in nearly 33 minutes of action. Whiteside played a team-high 33 1/2, blocked two shots and collected three of Miami’s 11 steals.
“Every day we come out we think we can beat anybody,” said Whiteside, who sustained the cut over his left eye on an elbow from Harden during a drive to basket in the second quarter. “So us being down 21 or however much it was, we were just going to keep competing.
“Just never count us out. That’s the kind of mindset we’ve got every game.”
For the first half, though, Miami’s defense was lost.
Houston was getting to the free throw line, swishing three-pointers and imposing its will — something Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was hoping his team would do. Miami was slow to defend, turnover prone — and outside of Whiteside — not much was going right.
In the third quarter, Spoelstra turned to his bench: rookie Winslow — Chalmers and second-year pro Tyler Johnson — and gave them 30, 22 and 21 minutes, respectively, while the veterans watched. The Heat then turned the game around. Since Houston went small, Spoelstra went small, too. And it worked.
“The quicker we embrace that all 15 will be needed [the better],” Spoelstra said. “Different guys maybe will be counted on different nights, different contributions from one half to another. That’s the point of having depth to utilize that as your strength game to game.
“[Chris Bosh], Luol [Deng], Goran [Dragic], [Josh] McRoberts, Amar’e [Stoudemire] they couldn’t have been happier enjoying their teammates success and that’s a quality of good teams.”
Bosh, Miami’s second-leading scorer coming in, didn’t score until he hit a three-pointer with 10:06 to play. He finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
“It's a great sign for this team,” Wade said of how the Heat fought back. “I’ve been on plenty of teams that once you get down like that against a team that’s on fire, high-powered, you kind of let it go. But we kept fighting. And early in the season, to see some fight like that, for this unit, for this team, it’s a great sign. And we still didn’t play amazing. We just fought.”