The Miami Heat has struggled all season against teams that push the pace. It’s part of the reason why the Heat has a combined 4-5 record this season against league bottom-feeders Orlando, Brooklyn and Atlanta.
There was no slip-up, though, Monday night against the lowly Phoenix Suns.
Behind 24 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks from Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic’s 17 points and five assists, the Heat took care of business 125-103 at AmericanAirlines Arena, and moved into seventh place in the Eastern Conference by virtue of Milwaukee’s loss at Indiana.
The Heat, which play at Southeast Division-leading Washington (36-28) Tuesday night following a 4-1 homestand, moved past the Bucks (34-30) because it swept Milwaukee in the regular season and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. Detroit, whom the Heat beat Saturday night, fell five games behind the Heat and Bucks for the final playoff spot in the East after losing by 22 in Cleveland Monday.
The Suns, losers of 18 of their past 20 games and owners of the second-worst record in the league at 19-47 behind Memphis, came in ranked third in the league in pace. But outside of 31 points from three-point champion Devin Booker, Phoenix’s offense never really revved its engines. Miami held Phoenix to six fastbreak points and turned 17 Suns turnovers in 27 points.
Miami, meanwhile, shot 51.1 percent against the league’s worst defense and was 9 of 18 from three-point range by halftime. Miami missed its first five three-point shots, but made nine of its next 14 from beyond the arc to take a 61-48 lead into the break.
Luke Babbitt, who has started each of the last two games for Miami, missed his first three three-point shots, but made his next four in the opening quarter to match a career-high for threes in a game.
Phoenix and Miami were tied at 32 when Justise Winslow, who finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals, buried a three-pointer with 8:57 left in the half. Miami never trailed again. Winslow later ended the game with emphatic, highlight-reel dunk over Suns forward Marquese Chriss.
Seven players scored in double-figures in all for Miami: Kelly Olynyk had 15 points and eight assists off the bench, while Dwyane Wade, Babbitt and Josh Richardson all had 12 points.
The good news for the Heat heading into Tuesday’s game in Washington: outside of Winslow’s 31 minutes of action nobody played more than 26 minutes on Monday. Dragic played 23 minutes, Whiteside 25 minutes and Richardson, who got himself in early foul trouble, played only 19 minutes.
Counting Tuesday’s game against the Wizards, the Heat plays 10 of its final 18 games against teams in playoff contention.
After playing in Washington, the Heat will return home to host sixth-seeded Philadelphia (34-28) on Thursday and the Wizards on Saturday before heading out on a three-game West Coast trip that includes stops at Portland, Sacramento and the Lakers, who handed Miami its only loss on the homestand in blowout fashion.