Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 118-94 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-28) on Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
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1. Justise Winslow continues to flash his potential as the Heat’s starting point guard. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Winslow just looks comfortable in this role and he turned in another impressive performance Friday. He finished with 24 points on 11 of 21 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and just two turnovers in 34 minutes. With Winslow playing, the Heat outscored the Cavaliers by 23 points.
“It’s the shame about this league,” coach Erik Spoelstra said when presented Winslow’s stat line. “Sometimes because he’s putting together some rock solid floor games and really inspiring on both ends of the court, but really only people notice or look at that final number on the box score. I don’t want that to define the impact that he’s making, how many points he’s scoring. It’s about being a complete basketball player for us on both ends and he did that tonight.”
This has been the best month of Winslow’s career, as he’s averaged 15.2 points on 49.7 percent shooting from the field and 42.1 percent shooting from three-point range, 5.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 12 December games. The Heat has outscored opponents by 96 points during this stretch.
What’s been the common thread? In most of them, Winslow had played as a point guard with Goran Dragic unavailable due to a right knee injury that required surgery and is expected to keep him out until at least the February All-Star break. The Heat is now 6-1 this season with Winslow playing as its starting point guard.
One of the keys to Winslow’s surge has been his improved ability finish around the basket. After finishing last season with a shooting percentage of 54.5 percent at the rim, that number has spiked to 65.9 percent this month as he’s looked more comfortable using his wide frame to create space on drives.
“He’s playing well, man. It’s not by mistake at all,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of Winslow. “He definitely put the work in. I think early in the season, he was a little frustrated because it didn’t come as quick as he wanted to. But we just kept staying on him. I stayed on him and he stayed on his work, and you can tell the game is now slowing down for him. Once the game slows down for you, it’s scary how good you can be. We’re all enjoying it.”
It’s easy to forget Winslow is just 22 years old since this is already his fourth NBA season. He’s turned into a pretty good player for his age, and it looks like he’s only getting better. Good thing the Heat signed him to a three-year, $39 million extension (with a team option in the third year) earlier this season. That could end up being a bargain.
“It’s definitely on the rise,” Winslow said of his confidence. “Kind of game by game, but I think I’m just playing with a lot of instincts. But I’m just trying to lead. I want all the guys to play free. I want all the guys to be confident in their shots. I want to be confident in mine. I think that’s been a big thing recently. I think we’ve been super confident within each other and my teammates have been super confident with me.”
2. The Heat (17-17) did exactly what it was expected to do against the Cavaliers — earn a blowout win. Miami entered as a 10-point favorite over Cleveland, and even made that betting line look small.
Pretty much everything about Friday’s matchup favored the Heat. Now with 10 wins in its previous 14 games, Miami has been playing its best basketball of the season over the past month. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers own the league’s worst record and had just nine available players for Friday’s game. Cleveland’s long list of injuries included Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Rodney Hood (three of its best players).
So, the Heat couldn’t let this one slip away and it didn’t.
After falling behind by five in the second quarter, the Heat recovered by outscoring the Cavaliers 84-55 the rest of the way to earn the blowout victory. Miami was sharp defensively after a slow start, turning to the 2-3 zone for much of the second half. The Heat limited the Cavaliers to 32.3 percent shooting over the final three quarters to hold its opponent under 100 points for the sixth time in the past seven games.
It marked the Heat’s 15th consecutive home win over the Cavaliers, a streak that dates back to the 2010-11 season.
“It took us a little bit of time to get to our identity,” Spoelstra said. “I think we approached it in the first quarter, that this may be an opportunity that we can try to outscore somebody and just focus on the offense. But in the second quarter, we started to settle in and compete a little bit harder. In the second half, it was much better.
“We needed to bounce back after that Toronto game. I was curious to see how we would respond and we did in the right way.”
This is a good sign for a Heat squad that has already dropped too many games to losing teams this season. Two losses to the rebuilding Hawks specifically stick out. But Miami hopes Friday is a sign that those type of losses won’t be as frequent moving forward because its next four games are against losing teams.
“We knew what we needed to do,” Wade said of facing the Cavaliers. “We just came out a little sluggish early. We knew if we didn’t turn it up defensively, we didn’t have a chance. You give anybody in this league confidence, I don’t care what their record is or how young guys are on the court, guys can play basketball. We kind of had to lock in defensively and that’s what we were able to do.”
The Heat’s next matchup against a winning team isn’t until its Jan. 8 game against the Nuggets. Now is a good time for Miami to stack more wins together and get a few games over the .500 mark before it reaches a tougher part of its schedule.
3. With Heat starting center Hassan Whiteside limited by foul trouble Friday, reserve center Bam Adebayo stepped up. Adebayo finished with 18 points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes. He was a plus-18 for the game.
More importantly, it was Adebayo’s energy that really helped get the Heat going in the second quarter. Adebayo teamed up with Winslow to turn things around after Miami’s sluggish start to the game, as the duo combined for 16 points, four rebounds and four assists in the period.
It was Adebayo’s best performance since the Heat’s West Coast trip earlier this month, as he entered Friday averaging just 3.4 points on 32.1 percent shooting over his previous seven games.
“He hadn’t had the type of impact that he wanted, that he likes to have, the last couple of games,” Spoelstra said. “Immediately when he came in, he put his fingerprints on this game with his energy. He started out scoring 12 points in the first half, but that wasn’t indicative of his full game. It was the energy, the toughness, the presence in the paint. All of those things were great.”
4. Whiteside showed signs of progress from the free-throw stripe. He made just 2 of 4 from the foul line Friday, but it represented a step in the right direction for a player who had made just five of his last 36 free throws entering the game.
On display was the new free-throw stroke he’s been working on with Heat shooting consultant Rob Fodor. Gone is the jump shot technique, and in is a more flat-footed routine that calls for Whiteside to bend his knees before shooting the ball.
Immediately after Friday’s win, Whiteside was on the Heat’s practice court working on his free throws. While 50 percent represented an improvement from his poor percentage over the last few weeks, it’s still not where he wants to be. Whiteside shot a career-best 70.3 percent from the foul line last season, and he wants to get as close to that number as possible.
Whiteside, who was limited to 18 minutes of action Friday because of foul trouble, ended the night with 12 points and four rebounds. He’s shooting 43.7 percent on free throws this season.
5. Wade got a chance to give Chris Bosh his jersey after Friday’s game, and he took advantage of the opportunity. The Heat guard surprised his former teammate with an autographed jersey following the contest as part of the jersey exchange that’s become one of the trademarks of Wade’s final NBA season.
“That’s one of my good friends,” Wade said of Bosh. “We were chilling last night with my daughter talking. I didn’t tell him I was going to give him my jersey, but I thought it would be good. I gave [LeBron James] my jersey in L.A., and we all are what we are in this game because of each other. I thought it was great I could give him a little piece of this last dance. This organization is a championship organization and respected the way it is because of that guy. He helped bring two championships here.”
This isn’t the first time Bosh attended a game at AmericanAirlines Arena this season. He was also at the Heat’s win over the Knicks on Oct. 24.
Bosh spent time in the Heat’s locker room after Friday’s contest, talking (but mostly laughing) with Heat players and staff. Whatever tension there was between Bosh and the organization from their separation seems to be long gone.