Dwyane Wade said the the fight for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in the East has been good for the Miami Heat.
He said it keeps him and his teammates “engaged,” and “sharp” and “ready for the playoffs.”
For a half Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls it was hard to tell just how engaged and ready the Heat is for what’s around the corner. But Miami picked up its pace, found its shooting stroke and put the Bulls on the brink of playoff elimination with a 106-98 come-from-behind win at American Airlines Arena.
“They really came out fighting,” said Wade, who led seven double-digit scorers for Miami with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists as the Heat swept Chicago in the season series for only the second time ever and the first since 2003-04.
“We played three times previous and this was the most fight they’ve had,” Wade continued. “At halftime we were only down six and knew we could play a lot better. More so than anything we had to turn up our energy a little bit and kind of get control of the game.
“The crowd, the energy was amazing in here – the kind that gets you ready for the playoffs. This is the time of year you feel alive."
The Bulls (39-40) may be close to being put out of their misery, but the Heat (46-32) are still very much alive in the fight for home-court in the first round of the playoffs. With four games left in the season,
Miami remains seeded fifth in the East, a game in front of Charlotte (45-33), half a game back of Atlanta (47-32) which is in third and tied with Boston (46-32), which owns the head-to-head tiebreaker and sits fourth in the East.
Thursday, the story was the Heat’s second-half surge. Joe Johnson had 17 points, Goran Dragic scored 16 points and posted a career-high 12 rebounds and Hassan Whiteside posted his 36th double-double of the
season with 16 points and 12 rebounds and a block. But Whiteside didn’t look sharp for most of it a day after sitting out practice Wednesday with a bruised right thigh.
“I felt a little pain in it,” Whiteside said. “But as it got warmed up I felt a little better."
The Heat led for all of 13 seconds over the first two quarters and trailed 46-40 after playing an uninspired first half.
But after shooting just 39.5 percent and posting a season-low three assists for a half, Miami came out aggressive and determined to score easier baskets in the third quarter. The Heat shot 66.7 percent in the quarter and doled out eight assists in the period to grab a 75-69 lead heading into the fourth.
With 9:46 to go in the fourth quarter, rookie Josh Richardson drove down the middle of the lane and threw down a vicious two-handed slam over Bulls 6-11 forward Bobby Portis. The basket put the Heat in front 79-74 but didn’t put the Bulls away. Chicago went on a 13-4 run and took an 84-81 lead on a Derrick Rose floater with 6:22 to play.
But right after that, the Heat responded with a 10-2 run of its own to take the lead for good. Whiteside led the charge, grabbing offensive rebounds and finally picking up his first and only block of the game on
Rose with 3:50 to go. Four seconds later, Wade drove to the basket, scored and drew the foul, putting the Heat up 90-86 with the ensuing free throw.
“Hassan, that's his gift -- his ability to protect the rim,” Spoelstra said. “He's getting better with his pick and roll defense. We're still pushing to try to get him to another level. But I thought he made some good defensive reads.”
For the second game in a row, Whiteside was benched midway through the second quarter and replaced by veteran Udonis Haslem. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Whiteside’s benching in Tuesday’s win over the Pistons was needed as a “teaching moment” and that he was happy to see Whiteside return with energy.
Thursday’s stint on the bench lasted about a minute longer than Tuesday’s, but didn’t produce the same results. Whiteside picked up a foul six seconds into his return and went into the break with only four points, two rebounds and no blocks in 13 minutes. Still, Whiteside said what happened Thursday wasn’t a benching – more like a blow.
“He used to play me two 15 minutes stretches,” he explained. “Now it's just like six minutes, a quick two minute break and then seven more minutes. That's just something we're doing."
Whiteside never really got going until late in the third quarter after Bulls forward Doug McDermott tackled him to the ground with 1:12 to go in the period under the basket. McDermott was hit with a flagrant foul and Whiteside hit the ensuing free throws before following it up after the side out with a driving layup to the basket.
“I saw the line of scrimmage and I got sacked for a loss of five,” Whiteside joked afterward. “I wasn't mad or nothing. It was a good tackle. I was going to dunk it if he didn't get me."
Spoelstra said he was impressed with the composure Whiteside showed with the tackle and with how he handled the officiating. Whiteside fouled out for only the second time this season late in the fourth.
Said Whiteside: “"I really couldn't sneeze on anybody tonight without it being a foul.”
During a timeout with 2:33 left in the opening quarter, the Heat played a special tribute video on the big screens in the arena for TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager.
Sager, 64, whose colorful suits and witty banter with NBA players and coaches has made him a fan favorite, has been battling myeloid leukemia for the past two years and revealed last month the aggressive cancer was no longer in remission.
Sager said doctors have told him if untreated, he would only live three to six months, but Sager has continued receiving treatment and working the sidelines.
During another time out later in the half, Heat in-house hype man Dale McLean played a game of Sager or Sofa with the sideline reporter, asking him to look at pictures on the big screen to determine if the cloth in the photo was from a suit of his or that from a sofa.
Friday: Heat at Magic
When/where: 7 p.m.; Amway Center, Orlando.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WRTO 98.3 FM (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 60-45.
Scouting report: This is the first game of a home-and-home between the Heat and Magic. While Miami has alrady clicnhed a playoff berth, Orlando has been eliminated from postseason contention. Miami won each of the teams’ two previous meetings this season, but the Magic’s young core, led by Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier, could challenge the Heat’s older roster. Slam Dunk Contest champion Aaron Gordon is expected to miss the game for Orlando after being diagnosed with a concussion.