When the Miami Heat wrapped up the preseason last week, coach Erik Spoelstra felt pretty good about the identity his team was developing and how close they were getting to how he wants them to play this season.
Whatever momentum Spoelstra thought the Heat was building lasted only about a quarter on opening night.
Behind Evan Fournier’s 23 points, including nine in the fourth quarter, the Magic started the 2017-18 season much like they finished the 2016-17 season — being a tough team for the Heat to handle — in a 116-109 Miami defeat at Amway Center.
The Heat’s defensive breakdowns were ultimately too much to overcome – even on a night when Hassan Whiteside poured in 26 points and 22 rebounds and become the first player since Kevin Garnett in 2007 to open the season with a 20-point, 20-rebound game.
“Come on, how much do we have to score to win?” a disappointed Spoelstra said. “[Hassan] was great. But it just shows you if you don’t defend those numbers are empty. [Hassan] could score 40 and have 30 rebounds, but if we don’t defend and do it with a team defensive concept of doing your job and trusting the next guy to do their job then it’s empty. Those are empty numbers.”
Not that the Heat didn’t fight to the finish.
Down 97-80 with 9:58 to play, the Heat mounted a furious rally to pull within a basket three times with less than three minutes to play. But it wasn’t enough.
Whiteside was about the only player for Miami who looked similar to the one who was part of the team’s 30-11 second-half finish to last season.
He even showed off his three-point touch, burying his first career long-distance shot with 6:42 remaining. But that only trimmed Orlando’s lead to 101-90.
“I don’t want to be one of them bigs who is taking all these threes because I want to do a lot of damage around the rim,” Whiteside said. “I want to really rebound and make teams pay in the paint. But I’ve got that [three-point touch] too. If it’s there I’m going to let it go.”
Miami led 37-32 after one quarter, converting on 14 of its first 26 field-goal attempts and collecting 12 assists on those buckets.
But the momentum quickly evaporated. Orlando took a 58-55 lead into the half and then extended the lead to double digits by opening the third quarter on a 14-2 run.
Goran Dragic, who sat out the final four preseason games to get a mental break, had 17 points, five rebounds and six assists but finished 6-of-19 shooting and never really got into a flow.
“I felt good physically,” Dragic said. “I could run all day. It’s just frustrating when you do everything, it’s an easy shot and you miss it. That’s what’s most frustrating. In general I feel good. I would have felt better if we won.”
The missed layups hurt the Heat, but so did below average three-point shooting for a team that was good at it last year. Miami finished 8-of-30 on threes.
“I feel like tonight we missed a couple of easy layups and maybe because of that we spread the ball more,” Dragic said. “But we got good shots we feel like. We just couldn't connect. Maybe if we penetrate more we get more points at the free throw line. That’s not an excuse. I think we lost on defense. That’s the main topic right now.”
Dragic wasn’t the only regular who struggled.
James Johnson, who signed a four-year, $60 million deal this summer, battled foul trouble all night and finished with 11 points, four rebounds and eight assists in less than 19 minutes.
Dion Waiters, who left temporarily in the third quarter to get his left ankle re-taped after he came down awkwardly on his foot after jumping up for a rebound on a missed free throw, had 15 points and four assists in 38 minutes.
But he was 7-of-17 from the field and 1-of-6 on three-pointers. He said he sprained his ankle three times.
“Mind over matter,” Waiters said. “I wanted to get the win, so I can’t be limping and do all that type of stuff and show weakness. At the end of the day, that’s not who I am. But we just got to keep strengthening it and whatever, and just take care of it. That’s all I can do.”
Spoelstra waited until the last possible moment to announce his starting unit. It included newcomer Kelly Olynyk at power forward and Josh Richardson at small forward.
But Olynyk (10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists in 21 minutes) and Richardson (10 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists in 35 minutes) ended up spending more time with the second unit after that.
Justise Winslow, playing in his first game since having season-ending shoulder surgery and playing in only 18 games last year, showed some positive flashes. He finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes off the bench.
“I felt good. For me I just wanted to get after it defensively, let the offense take care of itself,” Winslow said. “I just felt good to get back out there.”
The Heat returns home to begin a six-game homestand Saturday against the Pacers.