Five takeaways from the Heat’s 108-99 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena:
• Hassan Whiteside gets highly motivated to play Joel Embiid. And if this is their final game this season, Whiteside got the upper hand.
Their rivalry percolated in a preseason game in October, when Embiid motioned to the Heat bench to remove Whiteside, claiming Whiteside couldn’t guard him. Both then exchanged barbs after the game on Twitter.
And Embiid wasn’t done talking after Whiteside clearly outplayed him on Thursday.
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Referring to a third-quarter incident in which they tussled slightly as they ran down the court, Embiid said: "He tried to hit me in the back, which is kind of dirty because of the fact that I’ve had back problems. We’re going to see about that. I won’t forget about that."
Embiid was charged with a foul – his fourth – which sent him to the bench for the final 9:11 of the quarter.
"That fourth foul, I don’t remember touching him," Embiid said. "Even after the replay, I don’t know what they were looking at.... I didn’t think I touched [Whiteside]. But then they called a technical foul on him because obviously he’s the one that made a dirty play... He hits really soft, so I didn’t feel anything. But just the action of him trying to like do that I think is pretty messed up.”
Whiteside got a technical foul on the play. He appeared to accidentally hit himself in the face and then fell backwards.
When they squared off again in the fourth, Whiteside was far more efficient, with seven points (2 for 2 shooting from the field, 4 for 6 on free throws), two rebounds and a block in seven minutes. He closed with 26 points, 8 rebounds and two blocks.
Embiid shot 2 for 7 in nine fourth quarter minutes, closing 5 for 18 from the field with 17 points, seven boards and no blocks.
"Probably his best game of the season if you ask me," Goran Dragic said of Whiteside. "When he comes out with that kind of energy, it is really tough to stop him."
Does Whiteside get motivated to play Embiid? He thought about the question for several seconds, hesitated and then offered this succinct answer: "I look towards this."
Coach Erik Spoelstra was delighted with his play.
"A large part of that was Hassan taking initiative and being very assertive on both ends of the court," Spoelstra said. "It felt like he had more blocks than he did. He was a presence on both ends of the court. His assertiveness throughout the course of the game was undeniable. We did run maybe a handful of plays for him but I don't even know that he scored off those. It was all off secondary actions where he made his presence felt.
"He's stacked up some very good days, some very good shoot-arounds and practices and has really been improving in that area. Eventually you start to see it on the court. That was good to see."
Embiid blamed himself instead of crediting Whiteside.
"I took too many jump shots, missed a lot of them," he said.
• Dwyane Wade continues to exceed expectations for a 36-year-old.
Wade scored eight of his 16 in the fourth, including a dynamic dunk off a lob from Josh Richardson. He also had six rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes, shooting 7 for 13 from the field.
After the game, he lifted weights because "I was a little tired early in the game" and he doesn’t want that to happen again. But he said "I felt better going down the stretch."
Spoelstra put it this way: "He's filling his cup from the fountain of youth. It's all confluence of so many things coming together at the right time. I believe in that, in the karma, when that man puts on the Miami Heat jersey, he's something totally different. But it's also what this team needed at this time. It's perfect timing for a young team growing to have somebody of his stature and experience and cache that can bring such confidence to this group at pivotal moments during the game."
Spoelstra noted Wade is playing "compact minutes.. 23 minutes but it fits perfectly with what this group needed and enhances everything. If you play him 38 minutes, it might look different. But if you play him this kind of minutes in a Miami Heat jersey with this specific role, I truly believe he can as good as he ever was."
• Justise Winslow continues an excellent stretch with nine points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocked shots in 27 minutes.
"This would be his most consistent time and consecutive games since he played his rookie year," Spoelstra said. "You saw in his rookie year he got better every single month and earned more responsibilities. You are seeing somebody that's gaining confidence, finding rhythm within the offense and learning when to pick his spots and be aggressive and when to fill in the gaps."
He hit 3 of 4 threes and is now 11 for 20 on threes over his last seven games, while shooting 52 percent from the field overall.
"He’s playing with so much confidence," Wade said. "I love him playing point guard with that second group. He’s learning how to penetrate. I have been happy seeing his [growth]."
Wayne Ellington, who had missed four games with a bruised thigh, hit three three-pointers in the fourth on a nine-point night and Miami shot 14 for 26 on threes (53.8 percent).
• Spoelstra had available 12 players who had been in NBA rotations at some point in the past year, and he played 12 of them, bypassing Luke Babbitt and Rodney McGruder, as well as Udonis Haslem, with Jordan Mickey inactive.
"I got lost in all the sauce a couple times," Spoelstra said. "I had forgotten about a couple guys. You are used to having a different rotation. All of a sudden we have everybody available and now I am having to make good decisions. Our guys were able to play hard and empty the tank and our depth did play a part tonight."
Spoelstra made one change in his starting lineup from the previous game, reinserting Tyler Johnson in place of Babbitt alongside Whiteside, Dragic, Josh Richardson and James Johnson, who opened with the defensive assignment on Ben Simmons.
During one point in the first quarter, Spoelstra played five reserves together: Winslow, Wade, Ellington, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo.
• The Heat emerged with a better chance to finish higher than the seventh or eight seed.
Miami (35-31) evened the now-complete season series with Philadelphia and closed within one game of the sixth-seed 76ers and 2.5 games behind No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Indiana.
Miami, standing seventh in the East, is one half game ahead of No. 8 Milwaukee and 5.5 games ahead of No. 9 Detroit.
"It was a huge win," Dragic said.