When the Detroit Pistons visited AmericanAirlines Arena three days before Christmas, the Miami Heat was a much different team. Chris Bosh was playing, Joe Johnson was with Brooklyn and rookie Josh Richardson had made only four three-pointers all season.
Tuesday night, the team the Pistons ran into didn’t allow them to go wild from three-point range or rally from an 18-point first-half deficit.
The Heat never gave Detroit much of a chance at all, blitzing Detroit 107-89 and assuring itself a top six seed in the Eastern Conference barring a complete collapse over the final five games of the regular season.
“It was good to be home and good to see us play with a lot more energy on both ends,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I thought we were more aggressive tonight, had a better disposition. So we'll take it.”
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Goran Dragic had 22 points and eight assists, Hassan Whiteside posted his 35th double-double of the season (14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks) and Richardson, the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March, buried four three-pointers and scored 16 points off the bench to lead the way.
Dwyane Wade, who played for the first time since bruising his back and straining his neck after a fall in an overtime loss to the Lakers last Wednesday, had 16 points and played just 25 minutes thanks to a comfortable 23-point lead the Heat built early in the fourth quarter.
“We really locked in and did all that we needed to do,” Wade said. “We needed this win.”
In all, six Heat players finished in double-figures. Miami shot 52.4 percent and turned it over only 10 times. And unlike in Los Angeles and Sacramento last week, the Heat didn’t squander a double digit lead.
“When you have these kind of games –have an early lead, be up 18, 20 points – you always need to be ready in the third quarter because we know what the other team is saying ‘let's try to push one more time,’” Dragic said. “Tonight we responded well and finished the game."
With the win, Miami (45-32) stayed in a virtual tie with Boston (45-32) for the fourth seed and home court (Boston holds the tiebreaker), stayed a half-game behind the third-seeded Hawks (46-32) and also picked up a little breathing room against Charlotte (44-33) for the fifth seed in the East. The Hornets lost in Toronto and the Hawks won at home against Phoenix.
Wade had said before the game Miami needed to make up for its disappointing 1-2 road trip and play hungry like the Pistons, who are fighting to lock down one of the final two playoff spots in the East.
The Heat did — leading for good after Wade made a 3-foot bank shot with 9:53 to go in the first quarter. Miami outscored Detroit 29-17 in the second quarter and took a 54-36 lead into the half.
After making 16 of 31 three-point attempts in a 23-point win in Detroit on Nov. 25 and then 15 of 30 from beyond the arc in a 93-92 comeback win in Miami on Dec. 22, the Pistons finished 5 of 21 from three on Tuesday and shot 40 percent from the field.
Miami improved to 24-2 when it holds opponents to 40.5 percent or less in shooting.
Richardson and Johnson got Miami’s offense going early, combining to make 9 of their first 10 shots and scoring 11 points each in the first half.
Richardson, who posted the second-best three-point shooting month in NBA history in March (58.9 percent) with at least 50 attempts, made his first four three-point shots Tuesday and finished 4 of 5 from beyond the arc. He’s now shooting 50 percent from three-point range (49 of 98) for the season.
“It's good to be back home and get in a groove again,” said Richardson, who was 0-for-8 in the loss to the Lakers and 3-of-8 against Sacramento. “I kind of had a tough little stretch there, but I think I got back on track."
Veteran Udonis Haslem made his eighth appearance since the All-Star break when he replaced Whiteside with 6:52 to go in the second quarter after he took and missed a long jumper. Spoelstra, who appeared frustrated by Whiteside’s shot selection, called the benching a necessary teaching moment.
Whiteside immediately sat next to assistant coach Juwan Howard on the bench and talked about necessary adjustments.
“[There were] a couple teaching points I wanted to make and the only way to make it was to take him out,” Spoelstra explained. “He made some adjustments to that -- and I'll probably continue to do that because his energy was very good after that point.”
Whiteside returned with 4:02 left in the half and went to work in the paint. After he made a series of passes to teammates later in the quarter and the Pistons called time out, Spoelstra greeted Whiteside on his return to the bench with a high-five.
Whiteside said the high-five caught him by surprise.
"I thought the suit was too tight to give the high-five,” he joked. “But he pulled it off. He surprised me."
Whiteside, who has been under Spoelstra’s watchful eye all season, took the temporary benching in stride and joked about it afterward.
"I think he just pulled me out just get some rest, just told me a couple things he seen out there," he said.
“He said just keep blocking everything. I love Spo."
When pressed, though, Whiteside took a moment to be candid.
“The learning never stops with me and Spo,” he said. “He always wants perfection from me. He always says I can do something better. Every day is a learning experience. That's what he's there to do. He's there to teach, make me a better player."