This was not the way the Miami Heat wanted to go into a pair of tough games over the next three nights against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
Instead of “cracking the code” against the Magic as coach Erik Spoelstra hoped it would, the Heat lost ground in the playoff chase with a costly and disheartening 110-99 loss to Orlando at the Amway Center.
On a night the Magic (23-39) scored 64 points in the paint (four off the season high allowed by Miami), the Heat’s starting backcourt combined to shoot 4 of 25 from the field and Spoelstra never found the right combination on the court that could match the energy of Orlando, which won the season series against its in-state rivals for the first time since 2009.
“This season we’ve just never been able to get a handle on these guys,” said Spoelstra, whose team, at 28-34, now sits 1 1/2 games back of the Detroit Pistons for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
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“For three straight games they’ve been able to outspeed us, outquick us, outhustle us and put a lot of points on the board, where we take pride in defending teams. I was looking for any kind of lineup that would match and exceed their energy, and we just were never able to find it.”
Dion Waiters, who had put up some of the best shooting numbers of his career during the Heat’s 17-3 run after its 11-30 start, had one of the worst shooting nights of his career (1 of 11 from the field) and played only 19 minutes. He didn’t go back into the game after exiting with 8:35 to play in the third quarter.
Spoelstra said it had nothing to do with Waiters’ sore left ankle, which caused him to sit out Thursday’s practice in Miami. Waiters said his struggles also had nothing to do with his ankle.
“Happens man,” he said. “I ain’t blaming it on nothing. I haven’t had one of these nights in so long. But you need it to get back in the lab, work. I’m pissed that we lost. But at the end of the day we need to come out with a sense of urgency and know what we’re playing for and fighting for. Once we figure that out we’ll be in a better position.”
Goran Dragic wasn’t much better than Waiters. He finished 3 of 14 from the field and missed a lot of big shots in the fourth quarter after the Heat had trimmed the Magic’s lead from 19 late in the third to 97-91 with four minutes to play.
But it wasn’t how the Heat shot the ball (38.5 percent) that bothered Dragic the most. It was how the Magic scored so easily in the paint.
“They just pushed the ball, and we weren’t getting back,” Dragic said. “Usually we were one-on-one defending and it’s tough when you’re backpedaling and the guy is attacking. Everybody needs to be in the paint and try to help each other. We didn’t do that.”
At one point in the second half, Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside exchanged heated words after a defensive breakdown.
“Thankfully, we play [Saturday night],” Spoelstra said. “I love all these emotions, going through it with these guys in this locker room. I told them that after the game. The next five weeks are going to be extremely competitive, very emotional. There will be a lot of highs and lows, and we have to maintain our focus at the task at hand and do it collectively. You get uncomfortable after a game like this.
“We have an opportunity to get back to Miami and have a game [Saturday night]. It doesn’t matter who we play [Saturday night]. It’s in our building, and it’s an opportunity to make amends for this just 24 hours later.”