Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Heat fights tooth and nail for 100-88 win against Hawks

Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic, of Slovenia, is interviewed after Miami beat the Atlanta Hawks in an NBA basketball game in which Dragic chipped his tooth, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Atlanta.
Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic, of Slovenia, is interviewed after Miami beat the Atlanta Hawks in an NBA basketball game in which Dragic chipped his tooth, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Atlanta. AP

There should be some solace in the early stages of the season for the Heat, solace even as its players have struggled at times to create space and define roles, even as Miami has shot up and then down the conference standings.

The Heat is hardly alone.

The Heat is hardly alone in its agitation, not even in the clearly improved East, and not even when compared to teams that came into this season with much more continuity.

That was evident again Monday, as Miami topped the Hawks for the first time in the past eight tries, 100-88, with that task not seeming as tall as it did last season.

After dominating the East to such degree that they clinched the conference’s top seed in March, the Hawks haven’t regained any of that rhythm, even with only one major roster change — Tiago Splitter for DeMarre Carroll. After Monday’s shootaround, stalwart forward Paul Millsap was comparing their problems to his golf game; when he drives well, the putter’s shaky. And that seems to be the case for Toronto, Washington, Chicago and several other squads in the East.

That pattern continued again in this Miami victory, a victory that was partly due to something still being off with Atlanta — Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague combining to miss 20 of 24 shots, plenty of them open — but also largely due to what the Heat can accomplish when many of its key parts are working.

That’s why there were so many smiles in the Heat locker room, even if not all of them were as full as we’re used to seeing them. After all, Goran Dragic lost most of a front tooth in the third quarter, victim of an inadvertent Al Horford elbow, as Dragic challenged the Hawks center at the top of the circle. Sunday night, during a comeback victory against Memphis, Dwyane Wade had some colorful language for Dragic, ordering the latter to start shooting the well, bleeping, ball. Monday, Dragic had a message for Wade.

He told his backcourt mate that he had lost a tooth, but wasn’t going to lose the game.

So, after spending some time on the bench, and in the locker room, Dragic returned.

“We learned something about G tonight,” Wade said. “We knew he was tough, but not get-your-tooth-knocked-out-and-come-back tough.”

The Heat gave Dragic the tooth — which itself was a replacement for other lost teeth — in a jar, as a souvenir. And Dragic got something else, too: a new nickname. Teammates started calling him Jim Carrey, after the actor’s portrayal in the movie Dumb and Dumber. Tyler Johnson, also missing a tooth after a summer-league collision, got dragged into it, characterized as Dragic’s sidekick.

Chris Bosh wasn’t as impressed.

“It’s just a tooth,” he deadpanned.

And this was just one win, but it came with the sort of group effort Miami needs on more nights. Wade followed Sunday’s game-winner by missing 13 of 16 shots, but Bosh made 8 of 14, Gerald Green (also playing determined defense) made 9 of 14, and Luol Deng made 7 of 12, including plenty of critical little plays, adapting well to extended time as an undersized power forward. Dragic, in addition to toughness, showed guile, playing purposefully with additional pace and space, with 12 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. And, no, Hassan Whiteside didn’t play in the fourth quarter again, but it didn’t matter. Coach Erik Spoelstra called Whiteside’s defensive energy “fantastic,” beyond just the three blocks.

Spoelstra also said something else that echoed the sentiments of Dragic and Wade prior to the game, about how the Heat is in a mix of teams all in roughly the same spot, in terms of trying to get their games right.

“Besides Golden State, San Antonio, and OKC is playing better of late, but a lot of teams are in the space where everyone is trying to figure it out,” Wade said. “I’m not saying it’s comforting, but you just know that’s a problem that’s going around the league. First, we have our own things that we have to deal with as a new team, trying to come together and trying to learn how to win together.”

They learned to beat Atlanta, for a change, even an Atlanta team that hasn’t changed much.

Now on to Brooklyn.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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