As far as first halves of the season go, the Miami Heat can go into the All-Star break saying it has improved.
But as far as being a legitimate challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East — the Heat will have to prove that in the second half.
Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs, who own the NBA’s second-best record, sent Miami into the All-Star break with a humbling 119-101 defeat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“You saw what we felt. The Spurs were terrific in that second half,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Right now that’s a different level of basketball of where we are today. But that doesn’t mean that can’t change when we get back from the break.”
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Hassan Whiteside, who had stayed out of trouble most of the season, wasn’t around for the end of it.
Whiteside was ejected with 9:35 remaining after he drew a Grade 2 flagrant foul for throwing his right elbow toward Spurs backup center Boban Marjanovic while the two jockeyed for position during a free-throw attempt by the Spurs’ Patty Mills. It was the first time the 26-year-old Heat center was ejected this season and the first time he has really lost his cool after being ejected twice last season.
“That’s something that we’ll deal with, with Hassan,” Spoelstra said. “We don’t condone that kind of play. We’ve been through this with him before. But it’s a disappointing play. That’s not a basketball play.”
Team officials sent Whiteside home before the postgame media session.
“It’s time for a break I guess,” said Chris Bosh, who had 18 points, five rebounds and seven turnovers. “There [are] always two sides to a story. He knows what he means to the team. He knows that he has to keep his head in every situation.
“He wants to win. We just have to encourage him and keep telling him what it takes to win because we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface 50 games in. It’s going to get a lot more emotional, tighter and more tense in the locker room and on the court as this season goes on.”
Whiteside’s ejection came in the middle of a devastating seven-point possession for the Spurs (44-8) that turned an 87-80 San Antonio lead into a game-sealing 94-80 advantage. After Mills hit a three-pointer and made the free throw and Whiteside was ejected, Marjanovic made his free-throw attempt. Then, Kawhi Leonard made a jumper after the Spurs checked the ball in out of bounds.
Miami, which had trailed by as many as 15 points earlier in the quarter, had no chance after that.
San Antonio shot just 25.9 percent in the opening quarter and trailed Miami 24-20. But after that, the Spurs started rolling. They made 28 of their next 44 shots (63.6 percent) and took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who often toyed with Whiteside — drawing a pair of fouls on him within 36 seconds in the first half — led San Antonio with 28 points. Kawhi Leonard finished 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
Dwyane Wade led Miami with 20 points and five assists (9-of-12 shooting) and Whiteside had 14 points and six rebounds. Wade said Whiteside’s ejection was “on him.”
“The biggest thing for him is you just hope he learns from it,” Wade said. “He has been pretty good to this point. Everyone has a lapse a judgment, and obviously he had one. Hopefully he jumps right back on the saddle after the break and be here when we need him.”
The Heat shot 57.1 percent from the field — one of its better shooting nights of the season — but took 19 fewer shots than the Spurs. San Antonio also outrebounded Miami 43-31, holding the Heat to two rebounds in the second quarter and one offensive rebound for the game (the Spurs had 11).
“In this game they dominated everything in between,” Spoelstra said. “The loose balls, second-chance points, even the things they don’t excel at, they pounded us in the game.”
The Heat fell from fourth in the East to fifth with the loss. If the Pacers beat the Hornets on Wednesday they’ll move past Miami into fifth, dropping the Heat to sixth at the break.
The Heat, which went into the break last season at 22-30 and seventh in the East, opens the second half Feb. 19 in Atlanta and then host Washington a night later. Miami plays 15 of its 29 games in the second half on the road.
Miami is 6-11 collectively against the nine teams in the NBA with at least 30 wins. The only one Miami has beaten twice is the Hawks.
“We don’t like what happened in these last two games,” Spoelstra said, counting Sunday’s loss to the Clippers. “But we like what happened in the 10 days before it.
“As we normally do we’ll analyze everything and push to see how we can improve this team [once we come back]. That’s my job.”