During a two-month stretch of consistently overcoming obstacles and rising above expectations, the Heat nearly did it again Sunday, but ultimately succumbed, squandering a chance to move into playoff position for the first time since this turnaround.
The excuses, certainly valid ones, were there: The Heat played without its most consistent player, Goran Dragic, because of an eye injury. This was the most onerous second half of a back-to-back all season, with a 6 p.m. game beginning 14 hours after the Heat arrived in Indianapolis at 4:11 a.m., weary from Saturday’s win against Toronto and a clock adjustment from daylight savings time.
Nevertheless, the Heat made it very interesting, rallying from 10 down with 9:37 left to take the lead briefly before going cold in the final three minutes of a 102-98 loss to the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“It would be easy to come in here and make excuses,” said center Hassan Whiteside, who had 26 points and 21 rebounds. “Guys didn’t care if we got in at 4 a.m. Guys came in and played hard. It came down to some crazy bounces at the end.”
Wayne Ellington (19 points) and James Johnson (14 points) ignited a late rally, with Ellington’s 27-footer giving the Heat its first lead of the second half with 4:02 left.
After a Paul George basket, Dion Waiters (20 points) hit a long jumper with 3:24 left, putting the Heat up 96-95. But from there, the Pacers scored seven in a row (including a key put-back dunk by Myles Turner), and the Heat didn’t score again until Whiteside’s put-back in the final second.
“Once we got up by one, they made more plays down the stretch,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our guys showed some persistence and perseverance. Our guys are walking out of here earning their ice. They laid it out there.”
Ellington scored eight in the fourth and Johnson seven. But the Heat missed five threes in the final 2:37, with Waiters and James Johnson each missing two and Ellington one.
“We were right there,” Waiters said. “We could have made a play or two and won the game. We’re mentally tough. The whole time I was telling the guys, ‘We are going to win this game.’”
Without Dragic, it was left to Josh Richardson, Waiters, Tyler Johnson and James Johnson to get the Heat into offense, with uneven results.
“Goran helps with his ability to attack the ball,” Spoelstra said.
The commitment to ball movement was there, but it generally wasn’t as effective without Dragic. And there weren’t quite as many dishes to open shooters, without Dragic’s nifty forays to the hoop. At times early on, Miami passed and dribbled deep into the shot clock without being able to muster a high-percentage shot.
“It’s going to be different when you are missing your starting point guard,” Whiteside said. “It was different but not worse. We miss having our scoring point guard.”
Richardson, who started in place of Dragic, struggled offensively, shooting 2 for 7, with one turnover and no assists on a nine-point night.
But Spoelstra praised his defense on George (28 points, 9-for-19 shooting) and thought he got Miami organized on offense, saying “the next step is becoming more aggressive [offensively], looking for his opportunities.”
Tyler Johnson also had an off night (two points, 1-for-9 shooting, five assists, two turnovers).
The impact was limited from Rodney McGruder (four points) and Luke Babbitt (scoreless, 0 for 2), both of whom have had some very good moments in this stretch of 21 wins in 26 games.
The Heat shot 41.5 percent from the field and 28 percent on threes (9 for 32).
More problematic early was the defense, which allowed the Pacers to score 60 in the first half, during which Indiana outscored Miami 16-0 on fast-break points. Neither team had a fast-break point in the second half, partly because the Heat out rebounded the Pacers, 31-19, after halftime.
“They were carving us up in transition early in the game,” Spoelstra said. “There was more effort in the second half.”
With the Bulls losing, the Heat remained ahead of No. 10 Chicago but stayed ninth in the East, now trailing No. 8 Milwaukee by a full game, No. 7 Detroit by 1.5 games and No. 6 Indiana by 2.5 games.
Despite Sunday’s loss, the Heat won the season series with Indiana, 2-1, giving Miami the tiebreaker if the teams finish tied.
“Tonight showed our character,” Ellington said. “We are a team that is never going to lay down. Unfortunately, we came up short.”