After an inspiring and dramatic win here Saturday, the Heat will enter the final four days of the season with the ability to beat out any of three teams for a playoff berth. But Miami also will need help to surpass any of them.
The Heat’s exhilarating 106-103 win against the Wizards at Verizon Center, coupled with a Chicago loss and wins by Indiana and Milwaukee, leaves the Heat still at No. 9 in the East and not in control of its playoff destiny.
That’s because No. 7 Indiana beat Orlando, preserving a one-game lead over the Heat, which owns the tiebreaker with the Pacers. Miami (39-41) has the same record as No. 8 Chicago after the Bulls’ loss to Brooklyn, but Chicago owns the tiebreaker with the Heat.
So here’s the bottom line: If the Bulls or Pacers go 1-1, the Heat needs to go 2-0 to make the playoffs.
If both the Bulls and Pacers go 2-0, there are very few scenarios where the Heat could make the playoffs. One such scenario would involve the Heat going 2-0 and Atlanta 0-3.
Though the Heat trails Milwaukee by two games and would win a two-team tiebreaker with the Bucks, Milwaukee announced Saturday night that it has clinched a playoff spot.
But the situation would be far more dire if the Heat hadn’t pulled out a game that went back and forth in the closing minutes.
After Hassan Whiteside – who scored 30 points - hit a turnaround to put the Heat ahead by two with 1:01 left, Washington’s Marcin Gortat tied it with a tip-in with 47 seconds to go.
John Wall hit only one of two free throws with 21 seconds left, and James Johnson put the Heat ahead with a driving finger-roll with 11 seconds left.
“It was designed for him to make a play,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Then Josh Richardson – who was brilliant defensively all night – stole a pass from Kelly Oubre Jr., was fouled and made two free throws, leaving the Heat ahead by three with 9.7 seconds left.
After a Wizards timeout, Whiteside blocked Bradley Beal’s three- pointer with 1.8 seconds left.
Why was Whiteside, a center, defending Beal, a shooting guard who is seven inches shorter?
“Coach Spo told me, ‘You are defensive player of the year in my mind,’” Whiteside said. “I said: When a three-time NBA coach tells you that, it means a lot. I said, ‘Not one, not two, three. It means a lot, coach.’ In my mind, I was thinking I want to guard whoever gets the ball and try to make big block.
“I didn’t want to leave my feet. He did a hesitation, a cross and then a stepback. I tried to get my left hand in there over the ball.”
Tyler Johnson said: “There might be one other center that can do that.”
Whiteside, after going scoreless in the first half of the previous two games, was terrific, with 16 points in the first half en route to finishing with 30 points (on 12 for 19 shooting), 12 rebounds and three blocks.
“Nobody can guard him on that team,” guard Goran Dragic said. “He was amazing, patient in the low post, doing everything.”
Dragic opened 0 for 4 but then came alive after a three-point first half, closing with 18 points, seven assists and two steals.
And Richardson, despite making only two of six shots on a 10-point night, put his fingerprints all over this game with five steals and sterling defense.
“Josh Richardson saved us,” James Johnson said. “I had never seen anyone defend John Wall and Bradley Beal like that.”
Wall and Beal each finished with 16 points, Wall shooting 5 for 18 shooting and Beal 6 for 15. What’s more, Wall had eight turnovers and Beal five.
Johnson, making his third start in a row in Luke Babbitt’s absence, again filled the box score with 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Tyler Johnson added 19, including a big late three with 3:03 left.
And don’t forget Wayne Ellington’s 10 points, including two threes.
The Heat overcame a 44-36 rebounding deficit and 11 missed free throws (in 36 attempts) by helping force 20 Wizards turnovers and getting big baskets down the stretch.
And so the Heat enters the final two games – home to Cleveland on Monday and home to Washington on Wednesday – in a position nobody could have imagined at 11-30: still alive for postseason.
“This team has become very gritty and very stubborn,” Spoelstra said.
James Johnson said there were tears in the locker-room after Friday’s loss in Toronto, but that was replaced by the emotional high of Saturday.
“[Friday] night hurt,” Ellington said. “Everyone was emotional after the game.”
The Heat likely will get a motivated Cleveland team on Monday.
With Boston beating Charlotte on Saturday, that means Monday’s Cleveland-at- Heat game will be important for the Cavaliers in the battle for the No. 1 seed, suggesting LeBron James will play.
"This is what we live for," Dragic said. "The players want to be in this position. You feel alive. It's a lot of pressure, a lot of nights you don't sleep because you're so anxious for other results or your games. Some players like this, some players don't. All the players in this locker-room feel the same, that we deserve it and fight to the end."