Just when we were looking at the schedule and beginning to think it might be time to start planning for the draft, the Miami Heat has gone on the road to Denver and Utah and pulled off unexpected road victories on back-to-back nights despite a roster beset with injuries.
Forward Luke Babbitt started Thursday, but played only eight minutes before a strained hip flexor forced him out of the game. And Derrick Williams, who was dealing with back spasms when Miami landed in Salt Lake City, didn’t even play.
The Heat (7-12) had only nine healthy players by the end of the first quarter and yet still held on to beat the Jazz 111-110. Utah (11-9) matched a franchise-record with 17 three-pointers (the fifth-most made three-pointers in a game this season) and got a season-high 32 points from Gordon Hayward, who missed a 12-foot pullup jumper with a second to go.
“It takes grit, it takes toughness,” said Wayne Ellington, who after scoring 22 points in Wednesday’s win at Denver poured in 14 of his 17 points off the bench in the first half.
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“That's what we showed all night long. We knew coming in here it wasn't going to be easy. They're a very good basketball team. But we remembered what happened at home [in a 102-91 loss on Nov. 12]. They came in and got us pretty good. We came in and left it all out there on the floor.”
BENCH CONTINUES TO SHINE
After scoring 50 points in Wednesday’s win at Denver, the Heat’s bench combined for 55 points in Thursday’s win over the Jazz.
James Johnson led the charge, scoring 24 points (three shy of his career high) in a little more than 24 minutes. He made a career-high 11 field goals and finished with six rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal, providing another stellar all-around game he’s beginning to put up regularly.
With 1:44 to play, Johnson scored the Heat’s final points on a thunderous dunk over center Rudy Gobert. Then, on the game’s final play, he caught up to Hayward and put a hand in his face on the game’s final shot.
“I knew he likes to pump fake when he snakes or curls around,” Johnson told FoxSports broadcaster Jason Jackson on the telecast of the game’s final defensive play. “I knew there was only three seconds left. I had great teammates there on the elbow. All I had to do was jump late.”
Johnson, who has only had eight 20-point games in his career, made his 20th and 21st three-pointers of the season Thursday. His season high prior to this season with the Heat is 22.
Not only is Johnson shooting a career-best 35 percent from three-point range and averaging 10.3 points per game, he’s handling the ball plenty when Goran Dragic goes to the bench, something the Heat sorely needs with Dion Waiters and Josh Richardson out with injuries.
“We wanted to be open minded to whatever he wanted to push himself to become,” coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters in Salt Lake City after the game of Johnson, who is also averaging 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 blocks per game.
“Sometimes in this league it just depends on [being in] the right place with the right opportunity, the right timing. We've always respected the way he competed against us. We felt because of his versatility and his skill set, his ability to play on both ends of the court, it would be a good fit with us. But he did his part. He came in early, got in great shape. He’s lost a great deal of weight. I think he's probably in the best shape he’s been in in his career and we’ve embraced him and who he is. He made a lot of big plays and obviously the dunk will be a play you remember. But defensively, those were tough covers for him.”
▪ The Heat’s bench ranks 15th in the league in scoring with 35.2 points per game, 14th in net rating (-0.3), 12th in minutes with 18.9 per game, eighth in field goal percentage (44.7 percent) and eight in three-point shooting percentage (36.0 percent).
Last year, the Heat bench ranked 27th in scoring with 29.5 points per game, fourth in net rating (5.1), 23rd in minutes with 18.0 per game, seventh in field goal percentage (45.0 percent) and 20th in three-point shooting percentage (32.8 percent).
With James Johnson, Tyler Johnson and now Ellington in the mix, the Heat’s bench has more firepower than it’s had in a while and it’s quietly becoming a problem for opposing teams. Once others return from injury, it can develop into one of the best benches in the league.
“It's a big energy group for us,” Spoelstra said of his bench. “We want both units to be able to defend at a high level, but that group defends and also gets stops and turns them into transition opportunities. And those can be big time relief points -- those fastbreaks. Especially in a game like this where you're playing a lot of halfcourt basketball against a set defense. If you're able to get some relief [baskets] in transition – like Tyler [Johnson] and JJ did – that can be what you need to get you over the hump and that proved to be the case.”
Dragic has played sensational since coming back from his recent elbow injury and is starting to become a force in the fourth quarter.
He scored 14 of the Heat’s 28 points in the final period Thursday and matched Hayward big shot for big shot. The Heat, which began the road trip 2-7 in the clutch, has sorely needed a go-to-guy in the fourth quarter and on Thursday at least Dragic was that guy.
“I made two threes and then the midrange jumper. It just got easier for me,” Dragic told reporters in Salt Lake City. “The rim looked bigger. I was just trying to make plays.”
Dragic matched his season-high with 27 points and posted four rebounds and six assists to go with only two turnovers. Over his last three games, he’s averaged 23.3 points, shot 45.3 percent from the field and produced 30 assists and only three turnovers. That’s quality, efficient basketball.
“I'm just happy we came [out] with the win on a back-to-back,” Dragic said. “We played great defensively both those games. It's not easy to play against Denver and Utah here. You know some teams they have a different mindset. ‘It's a back-to-back? OK, we don't have it today.’
“But we came out today like we needed to battle, we needed to defend and we did it. I feel like we played unbelievable offensively and defensively and this is the result -- two wins. But we're not over yet. We want to make this short trip successful and try to get a third one.”
▪ Hassan Whiteside, who had only nine points and 10 rebounds against the Jazz, had his streak of 47 consecutive games with a block snapped on Thursday. Yet, he didn’t sound the least disappointed in the postgame interview session.
“If the [other] team is going to try to take me out the game, I've got teammates than can do it too,” he said. “If everybody comes to me on the rebound, [my teammates are] going to get the rebound. Or if everybody comes to me on the pick-and-rolls, [my teammates are] going to make shots. As long as I'm helping the team that’s all I care about.”
Even with Whiteside not collecting his usual buckets in the post Thursday, the Heat still outscored Utah 64-30 in the paint. The 64 points were the most allowed by the Jazz and Gobert, a shot-blocking monster.
“Like I said, their team was coming to me,” Whiteside said. “I don't know what the scouting report said, ‘Let's all run to Whiteside’ or what it was. I'm like ‘Just go dunk the ball, go lay it up. If they block one or two [shots] who cares. We’re going to get it.’ We had how many [points in the paint?]. So they blocked five of them out of  shots. That's what I told them guys.”
▪ Spoelstra said after the game Babbitt’s injury is similar to the one Waiters sustained. Waiters is expected to be out at least another two weeks before being reevaluated.
“We'll find out more, but it’s a hip flexor strain. It's not a contusion,” Spoelstra said of Babbitt’s injury. “So we'll evaluate it. I don't know [if he'll fly home to Miami like Josh Richardson did Thursday]. We'll see when we get to Portland. He has family and his pregnant wife is in Portland. We'll give him a chance to go home.”
As for Williams, Spoelstra is hopeful he can play Saturday at Portland.
“It started yesterday and got a lot worse,” Spoelstra said of Williams’ back spasms. “He wasn't able to go through the walkthrough at the hotel. Hopefully he'll loosen up while we're in Portland.”
▪ Spoelstra said because of the Heat’s injuries he wasn’t making substitutions on Thursday like he normally does.
“Literally tonight guys were playing as hard as they could, [and they were] raising their hand to get guys in and out,” he said. “That's the most we've ever had to do it because of fatigue. We were playing a lot of different lineups. It didn't matter.”