Heat Check

Five takeaways from Heat-Clippers: Miami passed a much-needed mental test

Miami Heat forward James Johnson, left, dunks as Los Angeles Clippers center Willie Reed defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles.
Miami Heat forward James Johnson, left, dunks as Los Angeles Clippers center Willie Reed defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. AP

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 104-101 victory Sunday over the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center.

1. The Heat avoided what could have been a deep and far reaching mental blow. As his players were busy blowing a 23-point fourth quarter lead, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra stood and watched, letting the clock tick down and the lead shrink with a couple of timeouts tucked away in his pocket.

Why? Because sometimes you do crazy things early in the season and hope there’s a lesson to be learned from it. That’s ultimately what Spoelstra wanted to see out of his group Sunday – and finally did – when Miami recovered late and made the plays it needed to win.

“As soon as I watched [the replay] in the locker room, I was thinking, ‘Man, I should have called another timeout,’ ” said Spoelstra, who called just one timeout three minutes into the fourth quarter as the Clippers opened the quarter on a 16-0 run. “I had to burn one three minutes into the fourth quarter, I probably needed another one another about 2 1/2, 3 minutes later just to continue to settle the guys.”

But he didn’t because there’s adversity that needs to be faced and triumphed over.

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Miami Heat forward James Johnson (16) shoots as Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill AP

Miami was 1-4 in clutch games (games in which the score differential in five points or less inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter) entering Sunday’s game.

“Right now for us, we have to find ways, different ways on the road, even if it is crazy, even if it is ugly,” Spoelstra said. “And I think it’s really important for our team to go through the games that we went through the last two games, and even the Minnesota game, where there’s incredible emotion, and then what is required of that is incredible, competitive emotional stability.”

It almost seemed fitting that James Johnson, who fouled Paul Millsap late in Friday’s lost to Denver and sent him to free throw line for the winning points, redeemed himself Sunday by hitting what turned out to be the go-ahead free throws with 8.7 seconds to play. Johnson was just as responsible as anyone on the Heat for why the Clippers were able to mount the comeback because he had six of the Heat’s 16 turnovers.

But in the end, the Heat’s co-captain delivered.

What was the difference between Friday’s loss to the Nuggets and Sunday’s win over the Clippers?

“Mental stability,” Johnson said. “We didn’t get down ourselves. We didn’t get down on each other. We kept it positive regardless of what happened. I didn’t get one [complaint] ‘Don't do that. Don’t do this’ while I created six turnovers. So, it’s just all all being positive and moving onto the next play. I felt like the whole team was doing that and they absolutely helped me do it.”

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Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson, left, shoots as Los Angeles Clippers guard Sindarius Thornwell defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill AP

2. Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington rebounded nicely from a rough night in Denver and provided a much-needed lift with Dion Waiters out. After scoring two points on a combined 1-of-12 shooting in Friday night’s loss to the Nuggets, Johnson and Ellignton stepped up their games Sunday. They had 27 points combined by halftime as the Heat built a 62-49 edge at the break before Johnson finished with 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting and Ellington had 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting.

“We were upset we didn’t contribute the way we could have in the last game,” Ellington said afterward. “We sat on the plane on the way here and we watched film and we talked about it and we made a conscious effort that we were going to be better, we were going to be ourselves and that’s the way approached it.”

The way coach Erik Spoelstra has fluctuated his rotations early this season has made it difficult for some Heat reserves to get into a rhythm, something Ellington has acknowledged. Since his explosive second quarter against the Hawks on Oct. 23 when he buried a franchise-tying six three-pointers, Ellington had shot 3-for-19 from the field in the five games after that.

Sunday, Ellington buried five three-pointers and even rocked the rim with a rare dunk on a fastbreak with 7:02 left in the first half. Ellington had four dunks last season. But this one felt memorable.

“I felt a little bit springier, stronger man. I’m in better shape,” Ellington said. “So, that’s what comes with it.”

Johnson has been up and down all season. He’s had three games where he's made just one bucket (1-of-9 vs. Hawks, 1-of-6 vs. Celtics, 1-of-8 vs. Nuggets) and now three games in which he's been among the leading scorers (23 vs. Spurs, 19 vs. Bulls) for the Heat.

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Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, center, shoots as Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, left, and guard Patrick Beverley defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill AP

3. Welcome back Hassan Whiteside. After failing to pick up his first rebound until the second half Friday and complaining about his limited workload (24 minutes) in a frustrating loss to the Nuggets, the league’s reigning rebounding champion got back to posting a double-double Sunday.

He followed up his three-rebound effort against Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap with 21 points (on 9-of-16 shooting), 17 rebounds and two blocks in 31 minutes against DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.

Most importantly, when it mattered late, he stepped up on the defensive end and got a hand in Griffin’s face as he took and missed a 17-foot fadeaway with three seconds left. Johnson, who switched off on Griffin on the play when Jordan set a pick, said what he appreciated most was Whiteside’s vocal leadership on the final, decisive play.

“He was really loud with his communication and he was talking really loud,” Johnson said. “Guys like him want situations like that. So when DeAndre Jordan came and set the screen on me, I heard a loud ‘kill switch.’ I had all the confidence in the world Big Fella was going to get that stop.”

The bottomline is the Heat need a healthy, engaged Whiteside to win games in this league. He was all that on Sunday.

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Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, right, shoots as Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside defends late in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill AP

4. Before the fourth quarter meltdown, the Heat was really, really good. Lost in Sunday’s victory was how clean the Heat played through the first three quarters against a good Clippers team.

Miami entered Sunday’s game with the second-best point differential in the league (+4.5) in the opening quarter and the worst in the third quarter (-6.0).

Miami built a 34-20 lead in large part because it played a completely turnover-free first quarter and held Los Angeles to 27.3 percent shooting over the first 12 minutes.

Miami's bench scored 18 points in the opening quarter and the Heat didn’t commit its first turnover until 9:07 remained in the first half when a James Johnson pass went over the outstretched arms of Kelly Olynyk. The Heat had six turnovers at halftime and finished with 16 for the game. Naturally, seven turnovers came in the fourth quarter during the meltdown.

5. Justise Winslow’s first start of the season was foul-plagued and not great. Winslow, who is still working his way back from last season’s season-ending shoulder surgery, made his first start since Dec. 30 last season at Boston – in place of Waiters – and it was hardly one to remember.

Winslow drew his second foul with 7:20 to play in the opening quarter and picked up his fourth foul 53 seconds into the third quarter. He finished with two points, two rebounds and a steal at the very end of the game in 17 minutes of action.

As much as Josh Richardson has struggled at times (14 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals on Sunday), once Waiters returns (possibly Monday at Golden State) Winslow will likely be back on the bench.