Even with the lottery-bound Knicks playing without Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, a Heat player warned before Friday night’s game that this would be more difficult for Miami than it seemed because young Knicks players, eager to impress, would play hard throughout.
That proved prophetic, and the result was a painful and potentially damaging 98-94 loss, with the Heat failing in its third attempt to reach .500 and with all three of those defeats coming at AmericanAirlines Arena.
With Miami down two, Goran Dragic missed a driving layup with eight seconds left, and the Knicks were awarded possession after a basket interference call against Hassan Whiteside.
Even if Whiteside hadn’t touched it, “probably the ball would have rolled out,” Dragic said. “I went too fast. I make that layup 10 out of 10 times. The ball didn’t want to go in.”
After that play, Courtney Lee nailed two free throws, pushing the lead to four with 2.6 seconds left and essentially settling matters.
Even though Miami remained seventh in the East because of eighth-seeded Indiana’s loss at Toronto, the Heat and Pacers — both 37-39 — are just one-half game ahead of No. 9 Chicago (36-39), and that’s worrisome because the Bulls have a much easier remaining schedule than Miami and own the tiebreaker with the Heat.
Chicago not only plays the woeful Nets twice but has only one remaining game against a team with a playoff seed — Saturday at home against Atlanta. Conversely, of the Heat’s six remaining games, four are against playoff teams — Washington twice, Toronto and Cleveland.
Indiana, like Miami, has four of six against playoff teams.
“We knew this would be one of the most difficult things we have to do,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is a great opportunity still to embrace these games. When you have expectations a game is supposed to go the way you want it to, that gets you in the wrong mind frame. We lick our wounds and come back and get ready for a big game on Sunday” against Denver.
New York, now 29-47 and going nowhere, jumped out to a 14-5 lead, led 33-29 after one quarter, by four at halftime and by two after three.
Miami tied the game five times in the fourth quarter, including with 5:25 left, but could never take the lead.
The Heat essentially was undone by deficient defense in the first half and a sputtering offense in the fourth quarter, with Miami shooting 4 for 18 from the field and 0 for 7 on threes in the final 12 minutes.
The Heat shot just 41 percent for the game and 24.2 percent on threes (8 for 33).
“We had one of those nights where the three wasn’t going down, but that hasn’t been what we talked about that we absolutely need to do,” Spoelstra said.
Defensively, the Heat couldn’t stop Kristaps Porzingis (22 points) or Lee (20) or do enough to limit Knicks role players, including Justin Holiday (eight of his 12 points in the fourth) and Ron Baker (10 points).
There were too many defensive breakdowns early, including Josh Richardson forgetting to guard Lee on one possession, and several mindless mistakes, including backcourt turnovers by Hassan Whiteside and James Johnson.
“It wasn’t necessarily sustained poor play,” Spoelstra said, citing “pockets where we had mental lapses and gave up easy baskets. Setting the tone for the game at the beginning is vital. We were never able to impose our will defensively.”
After the defense tightened, Miami’s offense malfunctioned.
In the final 4:13, Dragic (22 points) had one shot blocked, missed three others and committed a turnover. James Johnson (12 points) missed a three. Tyler Johnson scored eight of his 15 points in the fourth but missed two free throws and a layup in the final 2:10. Rodney McGruder missed a three that would have tied it with 52 seconds left.
“Some of the [fourth-quarter] possessions were great, even got to the free-throw line,” Spoelstra said. “Some of our execution was sloppy and not with a purpose, getting the ball where we needed to go or making the easy play. It wasn’t enough good possessions, and we missed some open ones that we typically make.”
Of Dragic’s missed contested layup and Whiteside’s offensive goaltending in the final 10 seconds, Spoelstra said:
“I love Goran attacking to the rim and loved Hassan going after it. That’s normally a winning formula for us. Goran is not going to miss those. We don’t love him any less. Next time we get that opportunity, we probably go right back to him.”
Whiteside, limited to four points and four rebounds in the first half, came alive in the second half, finishing with 17 points, 16 boards and two blocks.
But with Dion Waiters missing his seventh game with an ankle injury, Richardson managed only two points, missing all four of his shots from the field, and was a minus-12 in 29 minutes, the worst plus/minus in the game.
“We should be better defensively,” Dragic said. “That’s where we lost the game. [But] we are still in the playoffs.”
But also with the Bulls — without Dwyane Wade — making a serious push to wrest a playoff spot from Miami or Indiana.
Not that anyone would question this Heat team’s work ethic, but Whiteside noted that Tyler Johnson (2 for 5 on free throws) and James Johnson (5 for 5) went to the Heat’s upstairs practice court, out of the view of reporters, to work on their free throws and overall games afterward.
“These guys take it hard,” Whiteside said.
Denver also will be desperate on Sunday, with the Nuggets battling Portland for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
“The one thing I know about that group,” Spoelstra said of his team, “is they’re mentally tough. This was not for a lack of desire, lack of preparation or lack of focus. We just didn’t put together a great defensive game. It was pockets of lack of communication, lack of focus.”