With 10 seconds to play, Dion Waiters had the ball in his hands and a chance to get the Miami Heat’s six-game road trip off on the right foot.
Waiters dribbled, drove and pulled up from 22-feet before firing a contested shot over Will Barton. The ball rimmed out and the Heat dropped a heartbreaker to the Nuggets 95-94 at the Pepsi Center Friday night.
“Once he let it go – I think I can speak for everybody who was on the bench – we were doing the Philly Cheese, man,” forward James Johnson said. “I thought it dropped. Unfortunate play. That’s basketball. We shouldn’t have even been in that predicament anyway.”
So much went so right for the Heat (3-5) early – and then so wrong for most of the second half – before Miami woke up and rallied from a 89-81 deficit to take the lead on the heels of a 10-0 run. In the end, former Hawks All-Star forward Paul Millsap was just too much.
He scored 27 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished out five assists and hit three free throws with 11.8 seconds to go to lift Denver (5-4) to victory.
“I just wanted to get back to the free throw line and redeem myself,” Millsap said.
Millsap, who missed a pair of free throws that would have given Denver the lead with 26.2 seconds to played, earned what turned out to be the winning free throws when he got Johnson to jump up and into him as he faked a three-point shot. Johnson fouled out on the play.
“He got him up on a shot fake, but J.J. made some big plays down the stretch, so we wouldn't be in that position without J.J. making some of those big plays,” said disappointed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We’ll ride with him always, through all of this.
“You feel the emotions right now. Everybody's disappointed when you have the opportunity to win on the road like that. But Millsap is a heckuva player. It’s a whole lot easier said than done, saying, ‘Hey you got to contain him, keep him off the free-throw line.’ He’s a very clever, savvy player under pressure and it was a helluva shot fake there at the end.”
The Heat, who plays its next two games back-to-back at the Clippers (5-2) on Sunday afternoon and at the defending champion Warriors (6-3) on Monday, can point to many of the same issues its struggled through early in the season for Friday night’s loss.
Turnovers again were an issue. Miami coughed it up 22 times, leading to 23 points. The Heat has now had four games of at least 19 turnovers this season and Spoelstra has said the team needs to average between 12 to 14 a game to win on most nights.
Another common theme: the Heat blowing the lead.
Before Denver took its first lead at 65-63 on a Nikola Jokic runner with 5:54 left in the third quarter, the Heat came out of the gate red-hot in the first half.
Miami made 11 of its first 12 shots and had six different players make a three-pointer in a 37-point first quarter when the Heat led by as many as nine. Then, the ball got slippery. The Heat scored 34 points combined between the second and third quarter.
“It happens every game – first quarter we get a big lead, coach takes out the starters, they tie it up and then we’re back and forth,” said Hassan Whiteside, who finished with 13 points, three rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 24 minutes in his second game back after missing five consecutive games with a bone bruise in his left knee.
“It's hard to get a rebound when they’re scoring and Jerkish, Jokic, I don’t really know how to say his name, he was at the three-point line [and they were] posting up Millsap. When you’re taking it out of the net, it’s tough.”
Goran Dragic had 18 points at halftime on 7-of-8 shooting including a perfect 4-of-4 on threes. But he was 1-of-7 in the second half and finished with 23 points.
Miami shot 65 percent in the first half and 30 over the final two quarters.
In the end, though, Miami still had a chance to win with its go-to closer with his hands on the ball.
“That last play of the game I was going to attack and then when I was going to attack, right before I'm trying to get to my spot or whatever, I lost [the ball] so I had to kick it to J-Rich and tried to get it back,” said Waiters, who finished with 15 points, three assists and three turnovers in31 minutes. “By the time I did all that, it was like five [seconds left]. So I just had to get a shot off. And it went in and out.
“I can live with that. It sucks, but we put ourselves in a position to win. Coming down that stretch we’ve just got to do a better job of knowing what’s going on and what guys like to do and put ourselves in a better situation. It’s going to be hard to win on the road. We fell back, came up short. Don’t hold your head. But this one we let slip away.”