Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 121-98 win over the Los Angeles Clippers (16-9) on Saturday at Staples Center.
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1. This was the Heat’s most impressive win of the season, and it’s not even close.
Why? Because Miami (11-14) was not supposed to win this game. It wasn’t even supposed to be that close, with Los Angeles entering as a nine-point favorite.
Shorthanded and on the second night of a road back-to-back set against a Clippers team that entered with a 9-1 home record, the odds were not on Miami’s side. But the Heat pulled off the upset to begin a critical six-game trip with two wins.
Miami won by a convincing 23 points. Saturday was just the third time since the start of the 2016-17 season that the Heat has won a road game by 20 or more points.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of the Heat’s victory was its ability to play its best basketball in the fourth quarter despite having just eight available players.
“When you’re coaching in this league, you want to have a group like this,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When they show up for shootaround and you know that even more guys are not playing, that guys look forward to the challenge instead of trying to make an excuse and get on to the next game. So we really had to show a tremendous amount of perseverance and grit in this, and get a lot of contributions. You can’t just talk about grit, guys have to actually play well and step up.”
Miami started with just nine available players with Goran Dragic (rest), Josh Richardson (right shoulder impingement), Hassan Whiteside (personal reasons), Wayne Ellington (personal reasons) and Dion Waiters (ankle surgery) all out. Then guard Tyler Johnson suffered a left hip contusion in the first quarter. X-rays returned negative, but he never returned to the game, which left Miami with just eight available players.
Dragic rested on the second night of the back-to-back set after making his return from a knee injury in Friday’s win over the Suns, Whiteside remained in Miami awaiting the birth of his first child, Ellington is away from the team due to the death of his grandmother, and Waiters has yet to play this season as he continues to recover from January ankle surgery.
After Saturday’s game, Johnson said he’s “optimistic” he’ll be able to play Monday against the Lakers. Richardson said he’s also hopeful he’ll play in that game.
“It just started this afternoon, really,” Richardson said of his shoulder injury. “I kind of did it yesterday [in Friday’s win over the Suns]. I felt OK after the game. But this afternoon when I was about to come in, it started flaring up a lot. So I tried to warm up, but it just didn’t feel right.”
Eight players were enough Saturday, as a diminished Heat team had enough energy on the back end of the back-to-back set to outscore the Clippers 30-8 in the fourth quarter. Los Angeles shot just 2 of 15 in the period, and center Bam Adebayo led the Heat’s push with 10 points, six rebounds and two assists in the quarter.
Another surprising part of the Heat’s win was the fact that its four available reserves were able to outscore the Clippers’ bench 49-43. Los Angeles entered with the highest-scoring bench in the league.
This unexpected win will help make up for one of Miami’s unexpected losses, like those two losses to the 6-20 Hawks.
“I know our record is what it is, but at the same time we’re a really good team,” Johnson said. “And this is the same team that was a playoff team last year. Just because it’s eight guys doesn’t mean those guys aren’t going to give everything that they got to win the game. And they did that.”
2. With facilitators like Dragic and Richardson out, and Johnson exiting the game in the first quarter, Justise Winslow filled the void. The Heat’s versatile forward finished with nine assists and just one turnover in 39 minutes.
“Justise throughout the course of the game was really a steadying force with J-Rich and Goran out, he basically was our de facto point guard for most of the night making a lot of rock solid decisions,” Spoelstra said.
Winslow also set a new season-high in points for the second consecutive night, scoring 21 after finishing with 20 in Friday’s win over the Suns.
“Justise is playing phenomenal,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “He controlled the game and ran point guard today for us, and got everybody in their spots.”
Winslow is simply playing good basketball right now.
The 22-year-old is averaging 14.2 points on 48.5 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from three-point range, five rebounds and 3.7 assists over his past six games. The Heat has outscored opponents by 54 points with Winslow on the court during this stretch.
“I think I’m finally just catching a rhythm,” Winslow said. “I’m healthy for the most part for a stretch of games and I’m just figuring it out. I’m still young. I’m still trying to figure out my niche in this league. But I think every game, I just get closer and closer to figuring that out.”
When the Heat signed Winslow to a three-year, $39 million extension earlier this season, it committed to his potential. The No. 10 overall pick in the 2015 draft has made that decision look like a smart one with this recent string of games.
3. Wade continues to serve as a reliable threat from three-point range. He scored 25, with the help of 5-of-10 shooting from deep in his 1,000th career regular-season NBA game. Out of those 1,000 games, it was just the third that Wade has attempted 10 or more threes.
“We joked about it afterwards,” Spoelstra said. “He asked me, ‘Would you ever guess that I would have shot 10 threes in a game?’ I said, ‘No. I probably would have taken you out and screamed at you for taking too many home run threes and shots.’ But he’s really evolved and he’s embraced that challenge of developing his three-point shot. He spent a lot of time on it and you’re seeing the results from that work.”
The 36-year-old Wade is now shooting 38 percent from behind the three-point line this season. That’s an eye-opening number for a player who was a 28.7 percent career shooter on threes over the first 15 seasons of his career.
If Wade keeps this pace up, this will be the best three-point shooting season of his career. His current career-best mark came in 2008-09 when he shot 31.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Over the first 15 seasons of his career, just 6.3 percent of his points came from behind the arc. This season, 33.6 percent of his points have come on threes.
It’s not often that a player reinvents his offensive game in the final season of his NBA career. But it looks like Wade has done just that.
4. Yes, that was a 2-3 zone the Heat played to shut down the Clippers in the fourth quarter.
It’s not often you see Miami use a zone defense. But with players battling fatigue and foul trouble, Spoelstra turned to the 2-3 look to help combat both issues.
It worked, as the Clippers made just two shots and scored just eight points in the fourth with the Heat playing in a zone for most of the period.
“Once we started to get in foul trouble and we were down guys, part of it was just a matter of survival,” Spoelstra said of his decision to use a 2-3 zone. “So we wouldn’t get totally worn out and try to prevent some of the fouls to be able to keep guys on the court. When you go to a zone like that, you just try to steal some possessions and we were able to stack more than I anticipated, and we just kept going with it.”
5. When the Heat limits its turnovers, it wins. Miami committed 12 turnovers Friday against the Suns and won. Miami committed 11 turnovers Saturday against the Clippers and won.
That’s no coincidence, as the Heat is now 7-1 when finishing with 13 or fewer turnovers this season.
The problem is Miami is averaging the ninth-most turnovers per game this season at 15.5. But the Heat has been better in this area lately, finishing with 13 or fewer turnovers in five of its past seven games.