Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 104-98 pre-Thanksgiving victory over the Celtics Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, which snapped Boston’s league-best 16-game winning streak.
1. The Heat finally played a complete game against a very good team on both sides of the ball. It took them 17 games, but the Heat finally has its first real signature win of the season. After Sunday’s embarrassing loss at home to the Pacers by 25 points, coach Erik Spoelstra dug into his team for not playing with enough consistent effort and Miami did a lot of soul searching over two intense practices.
How intense? “I would have rather went through training camp to be honest,” tri-captain James Johnson said.
As usual, the Heat got off to a great start in the first half Wednesday, leading by as many as 18 points and holding the Celtics to 33.3 percent shooting (16 of 48) over the first two quarters. The difference Wednesday was the worst second-half team in the league (in terms of score differential) came out with the same intensity after the break.
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The Heat increased a 13-point halftime lead to 79-63 after three quarters against the best second half and defensive team in the league – no easy feat even if the Celtics spent Tuesday night on South Beach. Then, in the fourth quarter, after the Celtics went on a 13-0 run to trim the deficit to 91-90, the Heat found a way to win behind Dion Waiters and grit.
“Coach Spo, you let him have two days off before a game and he’s going to figure out a way to get his guys and inspire us to go out and do what we did,” Johnson said. “I think we learned a lot from going out and having a big lead and then losing a big lead [at Washington and at the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this season]. You learn from stuff like that. But like I was saying, that road trip really built something in us and really taught us a valuable lesson out there on the West Coast. So we’re just taking that, running [with] it and trying to be as consistent as possible.”
Set to embark on a four-game road trip Friday in Minnesota, Miami is now 8-9 with their two best wins of the season sandwiched around their worst loss. All that matters now is which team shows up Friday to play the Timberwolves.
2. Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters did all the heavy lifting with a lot of good screens from Hassan Whiteside and others. Miami’s starting backcourt combined for more than half the Heat’s points: 27 for Dragic on 8 of 17 shooting including nine free throws, and Waiters scored eight of his 26 points in the fourth quarter and finished 11 of 24 from the field.
Together, they combined to take 41 of the Heat’s 81 shots from the field. But it wasn’t by design, Spoelstra said.
“There’s so many different layers to it,” he said of Waiters and Dragic’s big nights. “I would argue that this might have been Hassan’s best screening game. So you look at so many things that are deceptive about a box score. He has eight points and 10 rebounds, which is pretty pedestrian for him, and a minus-11 in a plus-minus and it doesn’t, at all, display the type of winning plays that he was making tonight.
“And this is what we’re trying to help him with, it to understand how to really impact winning in all facets, and that’s in practice. [Tuesday], he had a very good practice, in shootaround, followed it up with a focused pregame. It’s not about the results. But I don’t see it as an accident. Those guys were able to get in the paint. They had some great screens from our bigs. K.O., he is one of the better screeners, anyway, in this league. That’s why it's a symbiotic relationship. Guys can’t do it on their own.”
After Sunday’s dreadful effort with screens, it was much needed to see the Heat do a better job with it Wednesday.
3. Clutch Dion Waiters is the best Dion Waiters. Who does the Heat turn to when things get hairy? Their lucky charm – and lucky he was Wednesday.
After the Celtics trimmed Miami’s lead to 91-90, Waiters got the benefit of a couple bounces – including one high off the backboard – to make a clutch, much-needed three-pointer with 2:56 to play. The next time down the floor, with the shot clock winding down, Waiters hit a stepback three from the corner to make it 97-90, and from there the Heat went on to win.
“I work on them shots when I play horse,” Waiters said with a grin. “We needed to stop the bleeding by any means. I felt like we got great looks. Sometimes when the tide turns it’s hard. They made their run. Like I said, it’s a helluva team over there. It reminds us of us a lot in certain ways, the guard play, aggressive, the defense. It’s really just like two defensive teams going to war. I just feel like tonight we wanted it more.”
Waiters came into Wednesday’s game No. 2 in the league in clutch scoring per game behind Kyrie Irving.
Now, he’s third behind Irving and LeBron James with 5.3 points per game in clutch situations. Waiters is shooting 59.3 percent from the field in 27 clutch minutes this season (16 of 27) and is 6 of 11 on threes in the clutch (54.5 percent). He’s technically fourth in total points in the clutch (42) – behind Irving (65), Damian Lillard (55) and James (54).
Waiters played so well down the stretch Wednesday he even forgot about his 0-for-10 scoreless game on Sunday.
“What game? We played Sunday? I don’t remember that,” he said with a grin. “I didn’t know we played. I was watching the Eagles game. I know they won though.”
4. Winning on the boards was important Wednesday and is important for the Heat moving forward. A big part of defensive success is making sure you don’t give up offensive rebounds after all your hard work. Boston shot 41.7 percent Wednesday, but really only after Kyrie Irving raised that percentage beyond the high 30s thanks to his 12-point fourth quarter.
In the end, Miami dominated Boston on the boards 48-37 and that’s where the game was won. The Celtics were 15-0 coming in when they won the rebounding battle. Wednesday, the Celtics scored just five second chance points all game. Had they had a better night getting to loose balls, the Heat likely would have lost. Miami is now 4-2 when it wins the rebounding edge and remains 4-7 when it doesn’t.
“We’ve been getting our ass kicked on the glass, 50-50 [balls all season],” Spoelstra said. “Our identity is to be tough and we haven’t shown that consistently enough. For pockets here and there, and, again, it’s that kind of effort to get a six-point win. Nothing is guaranteed but that has to be what we have to embrace all the time.”
5. Now it’s time to go streaking. As fulfilling as it was to end an eight-game losing streak to the Celtics and end their 16-game winning streak on the same night, the Heat is ready to forget about this win and get rolling during their four-game road trip.
"We’ve struggled with consistency all year,” said Tyler Johnson, who played one of his better games off the bench with 16 points, seven rebounds and an assist in 27 minutes. “We didn’t win some crazy game or anything like that. We felt like we did what we’re capable of doing. When we initially started this whole thing we said we wanted to be a top four team in the East. A top four team in the East wins these games, especially at home.
“For us, I thought we did a great job. But it can’t be like a surprise – like it was last year when Philly ended our streak and there was confetti and all that. That’s not throwing shots [at the Celtics] by any means. We just feel like when we started this season we were going to be a top four team. Our consistency goes beyond beating the Celtics. We don’t want to come back Friday and lay an egg. You know what you’re going to get out of [Goran]. You know what you’re going to get out of Dion. Now it’s time for everybody else to give that consistent level of effort and energy. It might not be points, but it’s not letting mistakes compound. That’s where our growth comes from.”