Instead of whimpering into the All-Star break with another disheartening defensive effort and a third consecutive loss, the Miami Heat responded to their coach’s challenge, shared the ball with precision and rode the shoulders of center Hassan Whiteside Wednesday night to an impressive wire-to-wire victory over MVP candidate James Harden and the 40-win Houston Rockets.
Coming off back-to-back losses to Philadelphia and Orlando, two teams behind them in the standings, the Heat built a 20-point lead on Houston in the second half, held the Rockets to 41.4 percent shooting and emerged with a 117-109 victory at Toyota Center.
Harden got his with 38 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists — his 15th triple-double of the season.
But Whiteside, passed up in favor of Carmelo Anthony by the commissioner Wednesday to replace Kevin Love at this weekend’s All-Star Game, was sensational. He had 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks, setting the tone with a dominating performance in the paint.
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“When he plays at that level of physicality and effort it is plain to see we are a much different basketball team,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “To be able to win in this building, that doesn't happen without Hassan playing at his highest level. The multiple efforts, imposing his size and physicality in the paint on both ends of the court – that started yesterday with the truth.”
The truth — as Spoelstra put it — began in Tuesday’s film session when players analyzed the defensive breakdowns in the Heat’s losses and “held each other accountable.”
It resulted in Wednesday’s stirring defensive effort, with Whiteside recording only the fourth game this season in which he’s had at least five blocks. The Heat (25-32) now head into the All-Star break winners of 14 of their last 16 and only two games back of the Detroit Pistons (27-30) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Zo called me and was just like he wants to see me block as many shots as I can,” Whiteside said. “I was just trying to go for every block regardless if my man gets the offensive rebound. Just go for every block and trust my teammates to have my back to get every rebound.”
The Heat, which made 12 of its first 14 shots, dominated the offensive glass in the second quarter and it helped build a 58-45 first half lead.
If there was one sequence that represented the Heat's effort Wednesday night it happened midway through the second quarter. Clinging to a 36-34 lead, the Heat grabbed four offensive rebounds in one possession and finally scored on a Tyler Johnson layup.
“There was just a couple times when guys might have been leaking out a little bit and it just provided us an opportunity to run in freely to get go get some of those boards,” said Johnson, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes off the bench.
“I said earlier the flip side of that is you don't come down with them and they get out in transition. We were fortunate to have some good bounces and we capitalized on it."
Miami shot 52.4 percent for the game and was 13-of-35 from three-point range.
Dion Waiters made four of those threes and finished one rebound and three assists shy of his first career triple-double with 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Goran Dragic added 21 points, five assists and several key buckets late to help the Heat stave off a 36-point fourth quarter by Houston.
But it all started with a more active and more defensive-minded Whiteside.
“You saw it tonight. He's Whiteout,” Johnson said. “He makes up for the mistakes you make. There were a couple times there where they had a couple buckets that could have changed the whole momentum of the game. And he just erased them. His presence back there and his ability to be dominant is special. He's one of the best centers in the league. For him, he's still getting better. As long as we keep him locked in, he’s one of the best centers in the league.”
The Heat, which plays the first game after the All-Star break at Atlanta on Feb. 24, also did a much better job offensively of passing the ball with 27 assists and only 11 turnovers. In the losses to Philly and Orlando, the Heat had more turnovers (35) than assists (29) in both games combined.
“We just made it a concerted effort to move the ball,” Johnson said. “When we do that, we're really hard to guard.”
Said Whiteside: “Guys are coming together. Guys’ hearts are in the right place.
“I told Heat Nation we're a whole different team. Everyday we're getting better. Every day is a learning process. We’re going to keep coming out here and giving it our all. Keep believing. If you're going to believe in any side, believe in Whiteside.”