Some unsolicited advice for the Charlotte Hornets: Don’t antagonize Hassan Whiteside. There’s a good chance it won’t end well.
Behind 33 points from Goran Dragic, 26 from James Johnson and 13 points and 20 boards from Whiteside, who was seemingly inspired by a third-quarter confrontation with Hornets center Cody Zeller, the Heat jumped back into playoff seeding with a 112-99 victory on Wednesday at Spectrum Center.
Chicago, Miami and Indiana are all 38-40, but the Bulls are seventh, the Heat eighth and Indiana ninth because of tiebreakers, with all three teams 1.5 games behind No. 6 Atlanta. The Hornets fell 2.5 games behind the Heat, their playoff hopes dimming.
The Heat set a franchise record with 21 three-pointers, on 40 attempts, with Johnson finishing 6 for 7. “They force us to play like that because they really pack the paint,” Dragic said.
But Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Whiteside was “the difference in the game.” He went scoreless in 14 first-half minutes, taking only one shot and leaving with his third foul with 3:11 left in the second quarter, though Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said “that was probably as impactful of a first half with the worst stats you can have.”
Then the Hornets made the mistake of aggravating him. With 9:14 left in the third, Whiteside aggressively extended an elbow to shake himself free after he was fouled by Zeller, who then got in Whiteside’s face and pushed him. Whiteside then shoved Zeller before being restrained. Zeller was charged with a foul, and Whiteside was given a technical foul.
Miami then unleashed a 14-0 run after the Hornets’ Nic Batum hit the free throw, which pushed the Heat’s lead to 75-59.
And Whiteside was at the epicenter, scoring three baskets within two minutes of the exchange with Zeller and swallowing up 11 rebounds in the quarter to go along with eight points and three blocked shots.
Zeller, meanwhile, had neither a point nor a rebound nor a block in the third quarter.
“That’s part of his growth,” Spoelstra said. “Who knows what would have happened two years ago? He was able to compartmentalize those emotions and [turn it into] efficient play.”
Whiteside then scored five points early in the fourth to help blunt a Charlotte rally that had drawn the Hornets to within 88-80. Charlotte never drew within single digits in the final six minutes.
Asked if the Zeller incident woke him up, Whiteside said, “What do you think?”
Of his 15-rebound second half, Whiteside said: “Coach told me we need 20 rebounds from you. Check. Someone ordered 20 rebounds so I had to deliver.”
Dragic, meanwhile, scored 19 in the first half, 10 more in the third quarter and four in the fourth, closing 13 for 21 from the field and 5 for 9 on threes.
Josh Richardson was also impactful, with 19 points, six rebounds and five assists.
With Luke Babbitt sidelined by a hip flexor, similar to an injury that sidelined him seven games earlier this season, Spoelstra opted to start Johnson for the first time this season.
Johnson equaled his season-high point total in the 141st start of his NBA career, finishing 10 for 12 from the field, and closing with four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Was it a tough call to start Johnson? “No other call; how many guys we have left?” Spoelstra said on a night he had only 10 available and played all except Udonis Haslem. “The minutes we gave him were crazy good.”
Johnson said starting felt natural because “I played with these guys a lot.”
It only gets more difficult for the Heat from here, with its four remaining games all against teams in the top four in the East: Friday at Toronto (which welcomed Kyle Lowry back from a wrist injury on Wednesday), Saturday at Washington, Monday home to Cleveland and Wednesday home to Washington.
The Heat has the most difficult remaining schedule among the teams competing for the seventh and eighth playoff spots.
What’s more, Chicago will get Dwyane Wade back from his elbow injury on Saturday, according to CSN Chicago.