After Wednesday’s “disappointing loss” in Milwaukee when the Heat gave up 66 points in the paint and a season-high 37 free-throw attempts, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra kept his players inside the team hotel Thursday for what he called “a teaching day.”
“We didn’t want to just brush a game like that under the rug,” Spoelstra said before Friday’s game. “We have to get a lot more committed to who we are. We say it all the time — what our identity is. Sometimes you can get intoxicated with your offense. But we have to be able to defend, protect the paint, the rim, the free-throw line. That helps our offense when we do that. But it’s not a winning formula when we don’t come in with a real aggressive defensive mindset.”
The Heat didn’t come out with that defensive mind-set against the Bulls, but found its way there by the fourth quarter.
Led by Goran Dragic’s season-high 26 points, rookie Josh Richardson’s career-high 22 points and Hassan Whiteside’s 13 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, the Heat scorched the Bulls 118-96 at the United Center.
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The Heat (38-27) entered the fourth quarter with an 84-81 lead and outscored the Bulls 34-15 in the final period. Chicago shot 51.3 percent through the first three quarters but was only 5 for 17 in the fourth quarter (29.4 percent). Miami finished with a season-high 14 steals.
“This is what good teams do,” said Luol Deng, who had 19 points, six rebounds, four steals and, along with Dragic, finished with a team-leading plus-29 for the game.
“We’re working on being great. When you lose one game on the road it’s really no time to drop your head. Not to take anything away from this great win, but our mind-set has to switch as soon as we get on that plane. We got to think about us playing a really, really good team tomorrow.”
The Heat, which picked up a game on the Boston Celtics to move within a half-game of third place in the Eastern Conference, wraps up its three-game road trip Saturday night at the Raptors (43-20).
Friday, though, it was a struggle for three quarters against the Bulls (32-32), who were without All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler (knee soreness) and former league MVP Derrick Rose (groin).
After trailing for all but 15 seconds in the first half, the Heat got its second lead of the game with 6:02 left in the third quarter when Joe Johnson buried a three-pointer to make it 73-71. The Heat finally took some semblance of control moments later behind a 7-0 run authored by Dragic, who hit a series of impressive layups throughout the game.
“We need him to be aggressive like he was tonight,” Spoelstra said of Dragic. “He has to have that attack mentality.”
Richardson, who has been a revelation since Beno Udrih was lost for the season Feb. 22, led a Heat three-point barrage (10 of 18) with four three-pointers in the fourth quarter. His 16 fourth-quarter points outscored the Bulls as a team.
Since Udrih’s injury, Richardson has knocked down 15 of his 24 three-point attempts (62.5 percent).
“I think going to college for four years definitely helped me out,” said Richardson, who attended the University of Tennessee. “It helped me mature a lot. I came into the NBA pretty ready to play and contribute.”
Said Dwyane Wade: “Josh is putting the work in. Earlier in the year he was struggling from three-point line. Now, he’s like a knock-down shooter.”
In all, five Heat players finished in double figures. Wade wasn’t one of them. He played with a badly bruised right thigh and finished with nine points (3-of-15 shooting), seven rebounds and five assists in 31 minutes. Wade said he took a knee to his thigh in the first half Wednesday against the Bucks while trying to fight through a screen on a pick-and-roll.
How did the thigh feel after Friday’s game? “It’s there,” Wade said through a grin. “No excuses.”
Chicago shot 63 percent, scored 16 points in the paint and led 31-23 after one quarter. The Bulls’ lead grew to as many as 10 points before going into the half up 58-54.
Whiteside, who skied for an alley-oop pass from Dragic on a highlight-reel dunk early in the second quarter, had 11 points, nine rebounds and two blocks at the half.
Spoelstra kept him on the bench at the start of the second half but brought him in a few minutes earlier than he had in the first half. That’s really when the tide started to turn for Miami — when Whiteside got in the game, Dragic started attacking and the Heat’s rookie started to heat up.
“We got a lot more energy and effort out there in the fourth quarter,” Spoelstra said. “It was like people were in two places at the same time.”
Friday: Heat at Raptors
When, where: 7 p.m., Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Canada
TV, radio: SUN; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 49-25.
Scouting report: The Heat ends its three-game road trip looking to get a season-series split with the Raptors, who have won the past two meetings by 14 and 20 points. Toronto, seeded second in the East, is 25-7 at home and 13-4 overall against the top five in both conferences.