The Miami Heat did something Wednesday night they hadn't done all season -- they went into the fourth quarter without the lead and won.
Behind the red-hot shooting of Wayne Ellington (22 points, five three-pointers, four steals) and 28 points, nine rebounds, 12 assists and four steals combined from Tyler Johnson and James Johnson, Miami opened the fourth quarter on a 17-4 run with Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic on the bench and rallied past the Denver Nuggets for a 106-98 victory at the Pepsi Center.
Whiteside (25 points, 16 rebounds, 4 blocks) was one again stellar and Dragic (16 points, 7 assists, 0 turnovers) was steady, but it was defense that ultimately lifted the Heat (6-12). Miami held Denver (7-11) to 31.8 percent shooting in the fourth quarter, matched a season-high with 14 steals and forced 19 turnovers which led to 28 points.
“Sometimes you keep on banging on the door and you get tired of where you are and you break through the door,” coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the game in Denver on the FoxSports post-game broadcast.
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“What I liked about it from a coaching standpoint was our best defensive quarter at the end. Sometimes it's what it has to be. You can’t necessarily count on a 31-point fourth quarter on the road. But we've had five straight games where we haven't defended the way we're capable of and it's tough on the road. You have to have the mental stability and toughness to be able to compete and make it tough on the other team. But when we needed to get timely defensive stops our best defensive quarter was in that fourth. This group has really been working at it. The group doesn't get discouraged. They just keep on plugging away.”
▪ CAN ELLINGTON DO THIS EVERY NIGHT?: For as troubling as the loss of starting shooting guard Dion Waiters is for the Heat (he'll be out at least for the next two weeks the team announced Wednesday), it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise because it allows Ellington, a better three-point shooter and scorer off screens, to play meaningful minutes with Dragic and Whiteside.
Yes, the Heat is 6-12 and barring a drastic turnaround are likely headed to the lottery. But Ellington has injected some hope into the season because he gives the Heat what it sorely needs -- a respected perimeter shooter that can score on the move.
While Luke Babbitt (shooting 30.8 percent from beyond the arc entering Wednesday's game) finally showed some life against the Nuggets matching a season-high with three three-pointers and 11 points, Ellington scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half including 12 in the fourth quarter (all on three-pointers). He also collected four steals and scored in transition.
As we wrote in Wednesday’s newspaper, Ellington’s presence alone forces opposing defenses to get out and guard him, creating the space for Dragic to drive and Whiteside to dive toward the basket off pick and rolls.
“When we make shots we're a different team,” Ellington told reporters after the game in Denver. “I thought it gets contagious honestly. Once one guy starts hitting threes, the next guy starts wanting to get involved and the next guy. It's like a trickle effect. It goes down the line. Luke got out there tonight and he hit a couple in the first half and then I got going in the second half. That's what it needs to be for us. In order for our team to be successful we've got to have that aspect from the outside.”
During his first seven seasons in the league with the Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Lakers and Nets, Ellington, who has averaged just 7.1 points in his career, was dubbed by Miami fans a Random Scrub Heat Killer because he had some of his best games against the Heat. In fact, Ellington has averaged more points against the Heat (11.1 per game) than any other team in the league.
“Yeah, I think he was meant to play in a Heat uniform,” Spoelstra told reporters in Denver after Wednesday's game. “I think he was auditioning all those years. It was his birthday [Tuesday], so, it was great to see him have that kind of performance. We need it. Guys love him. He’s a true pro. It's unfortunate he got injured in the preseason. But this was very similar to how he was playing in training camp.”
Ellington’s most productive season to date was two years ago on a Lakers team that finished with a 21-61 record. Ellington averaged 10 points a game, shot 37 percent from three-point range and started 36 of the 65 games he playe din that season.
▪ RICHARDSON AILING AGAIN: Spoelstra told reporters after the game guard Josh Richardson is likely heading home from the road trip to receive treatment at the Heat's facilities for a sprained ankle.
This is obviously the last thing the short-handed Heat needed with Waiters and Justise Winslow (sore wrist) already out.
Richardson, who missed training camp and then the first four games of the season because of a sprained MCL, was just beginning to hit his stride. He was averaging 13 points and had made 10 of his 22 three-point attempts (43.3 percent) over his three previous games. He was also handling some of the backup point guard duties, which will now fall on Tyler Johnson to handle more of with Richardson and Waiters out.
“We'll do our due diligence,” Spoelstra said after the game when asked if Richardson will have an MRI on his ankle. “But it's just a sprained ankle and we want to make sure we get it checked it out. That right now is becoming three times in a day in our facility conditioning center. So, if we do decide to send him back I don't think he'll want to go back because there's a lot of conditioning and treatment and more hours there than here.”
Richardson said he was trying to fight through the discomfort and play in Wednesday's game but couldn't.
“I thought it was something minor,” Richardson told reporters in Denver. “I kept feeling it. I tried to walk through it [Tuesday] and through shootaround [Wednesday] and it was tough. But I got treatment all day and I thought it would be better [for the game]. But I went out for warmups and it didn't feel right.”
Richardson said he tweaked his ankle in Monday's loss to the Celtics.
“I remember I was guarding Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart came out of nowhere and hit me,” he said. “It was a foul and I remember falling and I remember just kind of limping the rest of the game. But I don't remember how it happened. I just remembered it happened kind of fast.”
▪ BETTER COMMUNICATION: Defensively, the Heat remain one of the better teams in the league ranking fourth in defensive rating (100.9), third in blocks (6.1), second in fewest fast break points allowed (9.7) and 12th in points in the paint allowed (41.8). But Spoelstra and several players haven't been happy with the defensive effort of late.
Wednesday's fourth quarter performance and Miami's ability to turnovers into quick points was an encouraging sign.
“Guys communicated,” Whiteside told reporters after Wednesday's game in Denver, something Dragic said didn't happen enough Monday against the Celtics. “I think that was the best communication we had all season -- especially on the defensive end, talking to each other, getting guys in the right spot, communicating with each other. I think that was the best game.”
The Nuggets scored 54 points in the paint Wednesday, but just six in the fourth quarter.
“We wanted to keep them out of the paint. We didn't do it all night long, but we did it when it counted,” Ellington said. “We kept them out of the paint, shrunk the floor and we helped each other. That's how you get victories and we came out with one tonight.”