The hottest team in the NBA is still the Miami Heat.
Behind one of its best shooting nights of the season and a dominant fourth quarter performance, the Heat won its seventh game in a row Saturday night, rolling past the Detroit Pistons 116-103 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami outscored Detroit 26-12 in the final period.
Goran Dragic led five Heat scorers in double figures with 23 points and four assists, and Dion Waiters scored 17 points and dished out seven assists as the Heat backcourt once again shined. Wayne Ellington, meanwhile, had 19 points and matched a season-high with five three-pointers off the bench. James Johnson added 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
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The Heat will look to win its eight consecutive game — something it hasn’t done since March 2014 — when it hosts the Brooklyn Nets (9-38) on Monday night.
“It feels like all the hard work we’ve been putting in is paying off for us,” said Ellington, who led the Heat’s game-clinching 17-4 run in the fourth quarter. “Obviously we had a lot of tough situations early on. We’re not satisfied at all.”
The Heat (18-30) matched a season-high with 14 three-pointers on 28 attempts. Over the first six games of its winning streak, the Heat shot an NBA-best 41 percent from three-point range and ranked second in the league in defensive rating (98.4) and third in opponent field goal percentage (43.2).
Saturday, the defense didn’t show up until the fourth quarter.
Detroit (21-26) shot 58 percent through three quarters and led 91-90 entering the fourth. But the Pistons shot just 30 percent in the final quarter and couldn’t contain Ellington, who reeled off three consecutive three-pointers in the final period to turn a 105-99 Heat lead into a 114-101 lead with 2:59 to play.
“We were in so many clutch games while we were losing that we finally got over the hump, and now we’re just rolling,” said Johnson, who credited Whiteside’s emergence in the fourth quarter as the reason why the Heat played better defensively in the final period. “We’re confident.”
Whiteside, who returned to the lineup after missing Friday’s game in Chicago with a sprained right ankle, had nine points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes. But he didn’t get going until the fourth quarter when he reeled off five straight points to help the Heat seize control 105-97.
Early on, Whiteside was once again being outplayed by backup Willie Reed. He played only five minutes and 55 seconds in the opening quarter and got a quick hook from Spoelstra after Andre Drummond collected his third offensive rebound of the night. Right after Drummond’s rebound Spoelstra could be heard shouting from the bench: “Jump! You’ve got to jump!”
“These guys are some of the best teammates I’ve had,” Whiteside said. “The first half was top three worst first halves I’ve ever had in my basketball career. Guys are still ‘Hassan, you’re going to get it. You’re going to get it.’ That’s the kind of guy these guys are.”
Drummond finished with 17 points and 20 rebounds. Reggie Jackson led the Pistons with 24 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Miami led by as many as eight points in the first half and went into the break leading the Pistons 64-60. Waiters scored 13 points in the first quarter and had four assists by halftime. Johnson, meanwhile, had 14 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals in the first half, which saw the Heat shoot 61.5 percent.
Miami shot 53.2 percent for the game, just below its previous season-best of 53.6 percent in a win over the Lakers. Before getting on its recent tear from three-point range during this seven-game win streak (42.4%), the Heat was tied for 26th in the league (33.8%) from beyond the arc.
“We felt that our offense was trending better for a while,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It just wasn’t showing up in the results.”
Saturday’s win was impressive considering the Heat was playing on the second night of a back-to-back while Detroit was well rested having not played since Monday’s loss at home to Sacramento.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Guard Tyler Johnson, who has not played since the Heat beat Dallas back on Jan. 19, missed his fourth consecutive game Saturday with a strained left shoulder.
Johnson, who is averaging 14.2 points per game off the bench, warmed up with the intention to play against the Pistons, but was ruled out shortly before tip-off.
▪ Guard Josh Richardson, who hasn’t played since Jan. 6 because of sprained left foot, began doing some light court work on Friday, but has yet to begin sprinting. He said he still feels some discomfort in his foot “on certain movements.”
“I shot shots [Friday] and did some shooting and some ball-handling stuff [Saturday],” Richardson said. “I think it’s still a sprain. Foot stuff takes a little while.”
With four players out because of injury including Richardson, the Heat received a roster exception from the league that allowed them to sign a 16th player. On Friday, Miami signed forward Okaro White to his second 10-day contract with the team.
Once Richardson returns, the Heat must get the roster back down to the league-maximum of 15 players.
Richardson said he’s been the team’s “biggest cheerleader” while he’s been out.
“I’ve been sending pictures to Coach [Spoelstra] about team stuff and just watching all the games,” he said. “I’m having fun with it since I can’t be out there.”