With Dwyane Wade playing the roll of facilitator, the Heat turned in one of its best first quarters of the season Wednesday in a crucial victory against the Brooklyn Nets.
That didn’t happen by accident, and the momentum of that encouraging start might be enough to propel the Heat through a difficult stretch of games with the postseason hanging in the balance. Miami (29-35) is currently in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of Charlotte for the East’s final playoff spot. A tough road game against the Toronto Raptors on Friday is the next challenge, and it’s coming into focus how influential a poised and veteran leader can be amid a close playoff push.
For the Heat, Wade is that unquestioned leader, and against the Nets he got the most out of his teammates while also finding his own scoring rhythm. Wade finished with 28 points, and although that scoring was key in holding off the Nets in the fourth quarter, perhaps more important was Wade’s role as playmaker in the first quarter. He had six assists in the first period, including five in the opening four minutes.
In his past four games, Wade is averaging 28.8 points in 34 minutes while also contributing 5.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He had nine assists and two steals against the Nets.
“I think the biggest thing would be game-minutes rhythm,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Wade’s form recently. “When he came back from the All-Star break, it was 23 days since he had played before. It doesn’t matter what level athlete you are, as much as you do behind the scenes — and he was doing a great deal of work — it’s not the same as game competition.
“And then, of course, this time of year is what he lives for — these games that are very competitive.”
Friday’s game against the Raptors will be Wade’s 12th since returning from his latest hamstring injury. He’s averaging 21 points during that run while shooting 42.5 percent from the field. His shot appears to be just now coming on line, which is good timing for the Heat.
“I know what it means,” Wade said. “We’re in a tight race right now, and every night I want to be able to say that I gave everything I could to this team, and help us put ourselves in position to get a playoff spot.”
He did that on Wednesday. The Heat scored 34 points in the first quarter against the Nets — second-most in a first quarter this season — and the team was 10 of 11 from the field to begin the game. The high shooting percentage didn’t come off jump shots or a shooter with a hot hand, but Wade getting players such as Goran Dragic and Chris Andersen layups and dunks at the rim.
“I was happy with setting my teammates up early and helping them and getting them easy shots,” Wade said. “Then I was able to be aggressive. I didn’t have a great shooting night, but I was aggressive and I was able to get some things to go at the right time.”
After losing to the playoff-minded Celtics on Monday, there was a very real sense in the building before Wednesday’s game that the Heat needed a win against Brooklyn if it had any hope of making the playoffs. The Nets had lost four consecutive games entering AmericanAirlines Arena, and a loss to a seemingly apathetic team would have been devastating for Miami.
Adding to the urgency on Wednesday: The Heat was without suspended center Hassan Whiteside, and Wade woke up with a headache. A chronic sufferer of migraines, Wade phoned the Heat’s trainer, took his migraine medication, went back to sleep and hoped for the best. He avoided the type of full-blown migraine that has forced him to miss games in the past.
“We let one slip the other night, and right now with the schedule and how tight the race is, anybody loses focus and loses three in a row, it could be over for you,” Wade said. “So, we had to come in here [Wednesday], and no matter what kind of style it was going to be, we just had to get it.”
In years past, Wade might have taken the night off. Instead, he led the team to a key victory.
“We understand the importance of now,” Wade said. “We have a tough road coming down the stretch, and we have no margin for error.”
▪ Whiteside is expected to return to the lineup Friday at Toronto, which has lost nine of its past 10 games. Toronto (38-26) started the season 13-2.
Heat at Raptors
When/where: 7:30 p.m., Air Canada Centre.
TV/radio: Sun Sports; FM 104.3, 790 AM, WAQI 710 AM (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 48-21.
Of note: Hassan Whiteside is back from his one-game suspension and is expected to start at center with Udonis Haslem at power forward. Josh McRoberts (right meniscus surgery) and Chris Bosh (blood clot) are out for the Heat. Luol Deng (calf) is probable.