The Heat is a different team now than when it left for the West Coast nearly two weeks ago.
And that’s a good thing.
The Heat will return home to Miami on Saturday a better team than when it left for its five-game road trip to the West Coast despite losing Dwyane Wade to another hamstring injury on Tuesday. The Heat defeated the Sacramento Kings 95-83 on Friday night to cap its odyssey out West, and, all things considered, the last 10 days arguably have been the most productive of the season for the Heat. The team found a starting center to complement Chris Bosh, fixed its defense and finished perhaps its most difficult road trip of the season 3-2.
Wade missed his second consecutive game with a strained left hamstring and Chris Andersen sat out the game due to a fever, but the Heat still had more than enough to outplay a shorthanded Kings team missing Rudy Gay, Carl Landry and Ramon Sessions. Chris Bosh led the Heat with 30 points, Luol Deng had 25 points and rookie point guard Shabazz Napier, starting the second game of his career, had 12 points, six rebounds and five assists.
The biggest difference between the Heat that struggled through December and this improved team is a defense that can keep a game close even when its best players are hurt or missing shots. Once one of the worst defensive teams in the league, the Heat has overhauled its approach to fit its personnel and playing slow and deliberate basketball. It’s working. The Heat led 75-61 after the third quarter in Sacramento and the Kings entered the fourth quarter shooting 22 of 56 from the field for 39.3 percent.
A three-pointer by Deng off of the Kings’ 12th turnover of the game put the Heat ahead by 13 points with 5:28 to play. Deng drilled another three-pointer with 1:26 left in the quarter to give Miami a 75-58 lead.
Hassan Whiteside’s return to Sacramento was anticlimactic. The seven-foot center, who was drafted by the Kings in 2010, picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game and later struggled to find his rhythm. He played one minute in the second quarter, or long enough to pick up his third foul.
Whiteside finished with four points, a rebound and an assist in 15 minutes. His big dunk with 4:55 left in the third quarter was one of the game’s best highlights.
It was Whiteside’s second consecutive start and second start of his career. It also might have been his worst game with the Heat (18-22) since joining the team in November. Before the game, Whiteside noted how he had helped Cousins develop in his first years in the league. Both players were drafted in 2010, but Whiteside was cut from the team in the summer of 2012. Whiteside carried a chip on his shoulder into Friday’s game and those emotions likely will linger after his undisciplined effort.
Despite his poor performance in Sacramento, Whiteside is expected to receive a hero’s welcome for his first game in Miami since breaking into the starting lineup. The Heat plays the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday at American Airlines Arena, and the team arguably is playing better basketball now with Whiteside than at any point after the first week of the season.
Just before the start of the second half, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra placed his hand on Whiteside’s shoulder and offered some words of encouragement. The exchange seemed to help. Whiteside settled himself into the second half and scored his first points, a pair of free throws, to give the Heat a 59-46 lead.
Despite Whiteside’s frustrating first half, the Heat led 52-44 at the break. Bosh had 17 points in the first half, going 6 of 11 from the field and 2 of 2 from three-point range. Deng started the game with a flourish of energy and had 13 points at the break. Reserve Shawne Williams had seven points in the first half.