The Heat wanted this one perhaps more than any other victory this season.
Needing an emotional boost before a difficult stretch of the playoff race, the Heat defeated former teammate LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers 106-92 at AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday night.
Dwyane Wade played like the future Hall of Famer that he is with his old buddy back in the building, and Goran Dragic outdueled young Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. The important victory moved Miami to eighth in the Eastern Conference standings.
“We’re playing for our playoff lives,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
How close is the race for the East’s seventh and eighth playoff spots? The Pacers, Heat and Celtics all have the same record (30-36) with the Hornets a half-game back.
The Heat’s playoff race seems fated for a grand finale the final week of the season, but Monday’s game turned into a blowout in the second quarter. That’s when Wade scored 16 points, going 5 of 6 from the field. The Cavaliers combined for 16 points as a team in the period.
“He was vintage,” Spoelstra said of Wade.
Wade finished with 32 points, two assists and two rebounds and five steals.
James had 26 points in his second game in Miami this season. The Cavalier’s star, who won back-to-back championships with the Heat, has won plenty since leaving Miami, but he hasn’t won here. James will finish 0-2 at AmericanAirlines Arena after also losing on Christmas Day.
“You always want to bring your best against the best,” said Wade, who went 13 of 18 from the field and 6 of 8 from the free-throw line. “We needed this. We couldn’t lose this game at home.”
And let’s not overlook the obvious here after a euphoric night in Miami.
A first-round playoff series between these two teams would be the league’s headliner. It could still happen. It won’t be easy, but the Heat could end up seventh in the East and matchup with the Cavaliers, the likely two seed. The Heat plays another important home game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.
Dragic had 20 points, nine assists and five rebounds in another encouraging performance for the Heat’s overall team chemistry.
After an off night in Toronto on Friday, the Heat was back to showing signs that it might be able to salvage this season after all. Either way, it’s beginning to appear like, win or lose, this will be a positive step forward for the Heat in its post-James rebuilding process.
“You never get the sense that [Dragic] and Dwyane are taking turns,” Spoelstra said of his team’s new backcourt duo.
There were a lot of nights when Wade and James did take turns, and on this night James didn’t seem to start playing until the final three minutes of the game.
It was too little too late. He still led the Cavaliers in scoring and had four assists and two rebounds. His running mate, Irving, had 21 points, going 5 of 15 from the field. The other member of the Cav’s Big Three, Kevin Love, missed the game due to what his coach called general fatigue.
“Our guys wanted it very badly tonight,” Spoelstra said. “We understand how the playoff race is now. It felt like an old Heat game… a lot of passion and we needed it.”
With Wade and Dragic dominating the perimeter, Heat center Hassan Whiteside and forwards Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem went to work in the paint. The Heat out-rebounded the Cavaliers 45-32.
Whiteside had 16 points and 11 rebounds. The big center was hit hard a few times inside, but kept his cool. He was recently ejected from two games for retaliation.
“He has been working on it,” Spoelstra said. “He is going to be in a lot of collisions.”
It was a first half played to near perfection by the Heat. Wade was masterful, and the Heat shot 63.9 percent overall from the field. Much of that offense was from Wade, who was 8 of 11 from the field and 5 of 6 from the free-throw line for 21 points. He had 16 points in the second quarter, which equaled the scoring for Cleveland’s entire team during that 12-minute stretch.
During one otherworldly sequence by Wade, he stripped James from behind on the defensive end and then raced down the court for a difficult reverse layup. The basket gave Wade 19 points in the half, 14 points in the second quarter and put the Heat ahead by 19 points.
“He understands moments more than anyone in this league and he knew what his team needed,” Spoelstra said. “He played with great force.”
The Heat is pushing Whiteside for Most Improved Player in the NBA this season, and the second-chance center might be one of the frontrunners for the award at this point.
Whiteside didn’t begin the season in the NBA, but he played in his 37th game Monday after appearing in just 19 games in his first two seasons with the Sacramento Kings.
Entering Monday, Whiteside was averaging 10.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.39 blocks while shooting 69.2 percent.
Whiteside’s current averages for rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage are highs for the Heat. He shot just 1.5 points, 2.1 rebounds and 0.79 blocks while shooting 44.4 percent from the field during his first stint in the NBA. He was away from the league for two seasons, and developed into a dominant center during that time.
Against the Cavaliers, the Heat made a point to get Whiteside involved in the offense early, and the center started off the game with five quick points.