Miami Heat

Five takeaways: Even in loss, Dion Waiters flashed what he can be for Heat ... ‘A big spark’

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 103-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets (27-12) on Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

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1. Dion Waiters played and made an impact. After two consecutive DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision), Waiters was called into Tuesday’s game off the bench and helped provide a spark to a struggling Heat (19-20) offense.

Waiters, who has now been available for four consecutive games after missing a year of action due to ankle surgery, finished with a team-high 15 points and also dished out four assists in a season-high 25 minutes.

“It felt good, man, just getting back out there and being able to just play and get that excitement back,” Waiters said. “That’s what I missed the most is those type of games. Crunch time, crowd going crazy, things like that, so you appreciate that more being away for so long.”

Waiters’ most impressive stretch of the night came in the first half after entering the game with the Heat trailing 22-17 with 47 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Miami had made just 6 of 22 shots (27.3 percent) up to that point.

Waiters’ presence made a difference, as he scored nine on 4-of-5 shooting to go with three assists during an 11-minute first-half stint. More importantly, Miami turned its five-point deficit into a two-point lead with Waiters in the game during that time.

“A big spark. It was good to see him get back out there and play extensive minutes,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of Waiters’ first-half surge. “When we needed some points off the bench early, he provided it. We needed an attacker, he provided it. It’s definitely good. It’s a different look in that second unit, but it was a good look.”

The Heat’s offense looked noticeably better with Waiters in the game during that 11-minute first-half run. Miami scored 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting during that stretch, bouncing back from a slow start to the game.

“It was big,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Waiters. “He’s been putting in a lot of work. I know I’m asking him to be very patient with this, and he’s been pretty steady with his work. He gives us something a little bit different, obviously, and he gives a big boost. We were struggling to score and he was able to create some things for us. That part was very good for us.”

Waiters’ ability to consistently get into the paint off the dribble was the most impressive part of his performance. Not only did he create offense for himself with his penetration, but he also created offense for others by drawing extra defenders in the paint. With starting point guard Goran Dragic out, this is something the Heat’s offense has been lacking.

“I think I’ve been doing that, though, since I got here, just basically trying to be that playmaker, knowing I can get to the basket at will and defenses are going to play me different,” Waiters said. “It’s all about reading how they’re playing me and just attacking, putting pressure on the defense and once you get downhill, you’ve got to make a decision. You come all the way over, you’ve got sprays, lobs, things like that, so it’s within the game how I react. It’s all instincts.”

The addition of Waiters to the Heat’s 10-man rotation didn’t come without the subtraction of Derrick Jones Jr. The high-flying forward did not play against the Nuggets, ending a string of 15 consecutive games played.

With the way Waiters played Tuesday, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the rotation moving forward.

“That’s the goal. That’s the plan,” Waiters said when asked if he hopes to be a fixture in Miami’s rotation again. “I hope so moving forward, so my body can get caught up. I don’t think that helps me if I’m playing one game, out one game, so it’s about just being consistent, just trying to build it up, build from this and keep it going.”

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2. It seems like every time the Heat faces the Nuggets, it’s a close game that includes a dramatic ending.

Here’s how the two matchups went last season ...

The Heat lost to the Nuggets 95-94 in Denver on Nov. 3, 2017, with Waiters missing a potential game-winner in the final seconds.

The Heat also fell to the Nuggets in Miami, 149-141, on March 19 in Miami. It was a double-overtime game that included 19 lead changes and 13 ties.

Tuesday’s matchup followed that trend, as it featured 20 lead changes and 12 ties before Denver escaped with a four-point win. Both teams led by six at one point over the final eight minutes of the contest, but the Nuggets closed it out on a 16-6 spurt that turned out to be the game-winning run.

“This is the kind of game that we had in our wheelhouse,” Wade said. “A couple things go our way, it’s a different feeling in the end. It didn’t, but we played good enough to win.”

Things could have been different for the Heat if it could have controlled the boards. Denver outrebounded Miami 50-38 and finished with 15 offensive rebounds that resulted in a 23-11 edge in second-chance points.

Things also could have been different for the Heat if it made more free throws. Miami, which is the second-worst free-throw shooting team in the league, made just 15 of 25 free throws against Denver.

3. Nikola Jokic is good at basketball. The Nuggets center dominated with his dynamic all-around skill set, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists for his 20th career triple-double and fourth triple-double of the season.

Despite strong fourth-quarter defense from Heat centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo, Jokic still managed to score eight on 4-of-5 shooting and tally two rebounds and four assists in the final period. Those numbers include a game-winning floating jump shot that broke a 99-99 tie with 2.4 seconds to play.

“That’s what great players have an ability to do,” Spoelstra said of Jokic. “I thought between Bam and Hassan, Hassan played him very well, as well. Then you look at his stat line and he had 29 and 10 assists, a triple-double. I thought those last two plays, I don’t know if you could play it any better than that. The touch that he had in all parts of the rim for that thing to go down.”

Jokic, a 23-year-old 7-footer, is averaging 19.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists this season.

“He affects the game and it’s not in a loud way. He just goes about his business,” Wade said. “Then you look up and it’s 20, 10 and 7. He’s a very good player, man. Obviously, he’s young. But he’s been doing this for a while now.”

4. The Heat played a clean game, and still lost.

Miami finished with a season-low six turnovers Tuesday. But there was one that was particularly costly, when Kelly Olynyk threw the inbounds pass away while trying to find Josh Richardson for a game-tying alley-oop with 2.4 seconds to play.

“It looked like he was open for a little bit,” Spoelstra said of the late-game play that ended with a painful turnover. “It would have taken a very precise pass to get to there. That was one of the layers to it and I trust K.O. He saw that [Richardson] was open and I want him to have courage to make gutsy plays when you’re inbounding. I’ll never second guess our guys on plays like that. I think it was there. You live with that.”

The Heat is now 5-2 this season when committing 11 or fewer turnovers.

5. With the Nuggets playing on the second night of a back-to-back set Tuesday, the Heat couldn’t take advantage of a favorable part of its schedule. Well, as favorable as it can be when you’re going against a team that entered with the Western Conference’s best record. Miami fell to a Nuggets team that lost to the Rockets in Houston on Monday night, got to bed at their Miami hotel at 4 a.m. and was playing their third game in four nights. Denver was also without starting shooting guard Gary Harris because of a hamstring injury.

The Heat will play under similar favorable circumstances on Thursday, when it hosts the Boston Celtics. Boston has a home game against the Pacers on Wednesday before making the three-hour flight to Miami to face the Heat the next day. That will also mark the Celtics’ third game in four nights.

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.