Heat Check

Five takeaways from Heat-Suns: Miami handled an inferior team the way it should

Phoenix Suns guard Mike James slips past Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic during an NBA basketball game, Wed., Nov. 8, 2017, in Phoenix.
Phoenix Suns guard Mike James slips past Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic during an NBA basketball game, Wed., Nov. 8, 2017, in Phoenix. AP Photo

Five takeaways from the Heat’s 125-116 wire-to-wire victory over the Suns on Wednesday night, which improved Miami’s record to 5-6 overall and 2-2 on this six-game road trip.

1. The Phoenix Suns are not good, and the Heat – surprise – are much better when they don’t turn the ball over too much. Before we discuss what Miami did right in this game, let’s take note the Suns could very well be the worst team in the NBA. If not for the lightning quick Devin Booker, who gets to shoot as many shots as he wants on a bad team (he’s averaging 17.4 shots per game, the same amount as league MVP Russell Westbrook), the Suns (4-8) might have a hard time winning the G-League title this season with this roster.

That said, the Heat did what it was supposed to do against an inferior team. Miami led from start to finish and never let the lead shrink smaller than six down the stretch.

Coach Erik Spoelstra dumbed down the offense a bit in part because the Heat came in ranked 28th in the NBA in turnovers (17.1 per game) and needed a night where it wasn’t fumbling the basketball around.

Instead of errant throws, we saw a lot of dribble handoffs and isolation plays for Miami’s best players, who did what they were supposed to. Miami’s 15 turnovers (it led to 13 Phoenix points) were manageable in the end and helped lead to both the best shooting night of the season (53.1 percent) and best scoring night of the season.

“I thought the ball was in Goran and Dion’s hands quite a bit, which is how we’re built,” Spoelstra said afterward. “Justise and J.J. were ancillary ball handlers from there. But they both made such unselfish plays. And when those guys are making plays and being unselfish, Wayne [Ellington] becomes a great recipient of that. When you see Wayne getting open for open threes, it usually means our offense is working the right way. We’re being patient, working to get to specific actions and being unselfish to help get him free.”

Ellington made four of Miami’s 12 threes. The Heat are now 5-1 when making at least 10 three-pointers and 0-5 otherwise.

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) drives around Phoenix Suns forward Dragan Bender during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wed., Nov. 8, 2017, in Phoenix. Matt York AP Photo

2. Hassan Whiteside bounced back from his benching with a solid performance – and doesn’t appear to be seriously hurt. Late in the game, Miami’s $98 million center, who was benched in the second half against the Warriors Monday for not getting back on defense, took a tumble fighting for a rebound and got up clutching his left hand.

But Whiteside said afterward he didn’t think it was anything serious. “I went down and it bent backwards when I fell, but I’m OK,” he said afterward. “I just want to put ice on it, keep it from swelling.”

On the court, Whiteside finished with 23 points (on 8 of 11 shooting), 10 rebounds and four blocks in 28 minutes. More importantly, he was fully engaged and wasn’t sulking on the bench like he was Monday.

“It was great man because we were on the same page, especially me and Goran,” Whiteside said. “We were really communicating throughout the whole game, which we did a lot more of. What do you see? What did I see? We talked a whole lot in this one.

“We came back, bounced back well and we’re trending in the right direction. I think we started the road trip 23rd in defense. Now we’re just slowly climbing up and in the last five games we’ve been a top five defense. That’s what we want to get back to. I want to be the driving force for that.”

Those quotes after the game were certainly more appealing to hear than the ones coming out of Whiteside’s mouth Monday and again Wednesday morning at shootaround.

“It’s a long season and we're trying to build habits and everybody is held accountable,” Spoelstra said when asked about Whiteside. “We’ve had different guys finish [games]. There’s a certain standard of how we want to play. And different things happen in different games, and you just need to be emotionally stable to learn, to adapt to be ready for the next game and produce for your teammates. But Hassan was tremendous. He had a great motor, great disposition. His focus level was extremely high. He knows how important he is for our success. When he's playing at this kind of level, this ballclub can win a lot of games.”

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Phoenix Suns guard Mike James defends against Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, in Phoenix. Matt York AP

3. Goran Dragic likes facing his old team. The Suns stink, but it’s still nice to help your starting point guard improve to 5-1 against the team which traded him away for a couple of first round picks and a side of garbage.

Dragic had 17 points at halftime and 27 after three quarters, but he went 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter. He still finished with a game-high 29 points (on 9 of 19 shooting) and a season-high nine rebounds.

“Goran, I’ve said this so many times, greatness in this league is consistency and Goran you can book it every single night, what you’re going to get from him,” Spoelstra said perhaps with a bit of an underlying message to Whiteside.

“He had a little bit extra punch to him in this game. These games, when you’ve been at a place for a while, at a place that has been meaningful to you, you want to play well. And it was great to get that win for him. It always matters with our group, to try to get a win where guys have played before. He’s a happy guy right now.”

In six games against the Suns, Dragic is now averaging 22.8 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 48 percent from three-point range along with 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals.

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Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra motions during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, in Phoenix. Matt York AP

4. Hey, what do you know, the Heat can get foul calls. Perhaps the most important stat for Dragic on Wednesday: he got the foul line a season-high 10 times – something he did only seven times last season.

As one of the league’s leaders in drives to the basket, Dragic never gets foul calls. But on this night officials were whistle happy calling a combined 54 fouls between the teams.

Miami, which came in ranked 29th in the NBA with 17.4 free throw attempts per game, went to the line a season-high 35 times and made 28 of them. The most free throws the Heat had attempted prior to Wednesday’s win were 25 in an overtime loss to Minnesota.

Other Heat accomplishments on Wednesday: Miami outrebounded the Suns 53-34 and held Phoenix to only six offensive rebounds (tied for a season-low). That helped the Heat, the worst team in the league at allowing second chance points (16.7 per game), allow only eight second chance points to the Suns.

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Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters drives past Phoenix Suns guard Mike James during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, in Phoenix. Matt York AP

5. Philly Cheese was back and he showed up just in time to help halt a Suns rally late. Before he fouled out for the first time in his career and shortly after he started the game an ugly 4 of 12 from the field, Dion Waiters found his stroke when it mattered.

With the Suns down six, he came off the bench and hit an 16-foot step back jumper with 2:02 to play and then a 28-foot three-point shot with 1:33 to play to put the Heat up 117-106. For a guy who didn’t sleep much the last couple days and flew home for the birth of his daughter on Sunday, it was nice to see him able to deliver in the clutch and help the Heat avoid a meltdown.

“That’s that Philly Cheese, man,” Waiters said afterward. “I love those type of moments. Everybody knows. I wish I could have stayed in the game longer and not fouled out. I think I had like four fouls in a span of like two minutes, just defensive fouls. It’s crazy.”