New York basketball teams have been making the Miami Heat look good for a long time now, but this latest boost from the boroughs was a new level of image enhancement.
On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets made a kid named Hassan Whiteside look like Alonzo Mourning, and made the Heat actually believe in itself once again.
With a defensive determination rare for a home game this season, the Heat defeated the Nets 88-84 at AmericanAirlines Arena to snap a four-game losing streak and salvage some dignity before embarking on a difficult five-game trip to the West Coast.
The Heat (15-20) is now 7-12 at home.
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With nothing but losses since Christmas, the Heat was desperate for something positive out of the New Year, and Whiteside, the 7-footer with long arms and young legs, delivered with a boost of energy off the bench that made the difference in a close game between equally matched teams.
He filled the stat sheet with 11 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, but more than anything it was Whiteside’s resiliency and professional demeanor, his coach and teammates noted, that stood out after a difficult game on Saturday against the Houston Rockets.
After being dominated by Rockets center Dwight Howard less than 24 hours earlier, Whiteside had a season-high in rebounds and a career-high in blocks against a Nets team featuring talented big men Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez. Whiteside watched film all morning, breaking only for a sandwich from Publix, in preparation for the second night of a difficult road-home back-to-back.
“He has been great,” Chris Bosh said of his new frontcourt mate. “I think the talent speaks for itself, but most importantly he has come in and worked hard and listened to everybody and he’s making sure that he’s doing what he needs to do in order to help this team.
“I’m still going to be on him. I think he can be a lot better, and I want him to really exceed expectations.”
Whiteside’s ability as a shot blocker is what the Heat craves most, and his rejection of a shot by Lopez in the first minute of the fourth quarter triggered an easy fast-break layup for Heat point guard Norris Cole. Bosh then swished a 15-foot jumper to put the Heat ahead 70-64 with 9:56 to play.
A difficult pass from Bosh to Dwyane Wade with 4:49 remaining in the game was matched by an equally skillful leaning bank shot by Wade to put the Heat ahead by nine points. The play was a thing of beauty, and a needed reminder of how seamlessly the two longtime teammates and All-Stars can play together.
Bosh recently missed three weeks with a sprained calf, and Wade has been dealing with soreness as well, but the duo is getting healthy just in time to perhaps salvage the season in January.
The Heat lost 12 games in December, and many of those defeats came against inferior competition.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This league is tough, and we’ve had our fair share of tough losses in the last two weeks. You can cut it and slice it however you want, but we felt that objectively we would have had an opportunity to win probably four or five of those that we could have or should have.
“But you have to continue to forge, and not feel sorry for yourself and it just proves that even in a game like this we had to fight it all the way to the end. You don’t take winning for granted when we’re having a season like we’re having right now.”
Bosh finished with 26 points, going 10 of 16 from the field, and Wade had 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
The third quarter was once again a problem offensively for the Heat, but the team overcame its 15-point output with some inspired defense. Wade, Cole and Mario Chalmers funneled defenders to Whiteside in the paint, and he altered some shots and redirected others. The Heat led 83-76 when Whiteside subbed out of the game with three minutes left.
A baseline hook shot by Lopez cut the Heat’s lead to 83-80 and Nets forward Mirza Teletovic missed a spot-up three-pointer with 1:03 left that could have tied it. Wade then went inside for some hard-earned foul shots with 40.7 seconds left to give the Heat a two-possession lead.
Joe Johnson led the Nets with 19 points and Lopez had 16 points and seven rebounds off the bench. The Heat held the Nets to 39.5 percent shooting after losing by 36 points to the Rockets on Saturday.