Heat Check

Five takeaways from Heat-Jazz: Ugly win or not, defense is turning the corner

Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson (8) defends against Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors, right, in the second half during an NBA basketball game Fri., Nov. 10, 2017, in Salt Lake City.
Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson (8) defends against Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors, right, in the second half during an NBA basketball game Fri., Nov. 10, 2017, in Salt Lake City. AP

Five takeaways from the Heat’s ugly 84-74 victory over the Utah Jazz Friday night, which got Miami back to .500 at 6-6 and improved the team to 3-2 on this six-game road trip:

1. Defense really is the key to the Heat’s success. Before the Heat left on this six-game road trip following an ugly win over the lowly Bulls at home, Miami was playing like a middle-of-the road defensive, ranking 17th in the league in defensive rating (104.9). Since the trip began in Denver, the Heat has flipped its defensive switch on, ranking fourth in defensive rating (97.1) over its last five games and resembling much more of the team that ranked third in defensive rating (103.3) when it finished the second half of last season 30-11.

Friday night’s second half performance was one to remember. Utah led by 12 at halftime and then shot 1 for 18 in the third quarter (the third time in Heat history an opponent has been held to just one field goal in a quarter) and 4 for 33 in the second half total (no Heat team had ever held an opponent under six field goals for a half before Friday).

“The guys played amazing man. They were locked in,” Hassan Whiteside said. “We came in the second half and we made a commitment. We brought it in [into a huddle] and we said ‘If we seriously want to be a top five defense, let’s get to it man. We got several guys that are All-Defensive guys regardless of votes. They came out there and scored four field goals the whole second half.”

Said Goran Dragic: “We played awesome. The first half they scored too many points. They got everything they wanted. They scored a season-high [49] points in the first half. When we came to the locker room we said we needed to be more aggressive, especially defensively. Our defense was on point, especially that second half. But still, we need to do a better job. Especially I think they went to the free throw line too many times. That kind of hurt us a little bit.”

Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters (11) lays the ball up as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second half during an NBA basketball game Fri., Nov. 10, 2017, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer AP

2. Philly Cheese is a fearless – and that’s a good thing. Dion Waiters was 4 of 17 before he took over the game in the final 2 minutes and 45 seconds of the game, scoring 10 points and assisting Josh Richardson on a three-pointer, essentially accounting for all 13 points in the Heat’s 13-0 run to finish the game.

Waiters finished with a team-high 21 points on 7-of-20 shooting with one assist and four of Miami’s 20 turnovers. But in a game like Friday’s you were glad he was in a Heat uniform because he can errupt at any time.

Here’s a number that will open eyes: Waiters is now shooting an eye-opening 64.7 percent (11 of 17 shooting including 3 of 5 on threes) in clutch situations (games in which the score differential is five points or less with under five minutes to play. Last season, Waiters was 12 of 34 in clutch situations (35.3 percent).

“Today, I didn’t feel good the first three quarters. I just was blah,” Waiters said. “I couldn’t find it. That’s why in the third quarter, I came back and changed the game defensively. Doing all the little things and your shot is going to come. I missed a couple easy ones, but like I said, man, that’s never going to bother me because I know if I start to think about the misses then it will mess with me mentally. That’s one thing I learned about letting it go. There are two halves to a game.

“In the fourth quarter when I was on the bench, I just told myself: ‘Just stay with it. You’re getting the shots that you want, unfortunately they’re not falling. But don’t stop taking them.’ Like I said last year and I’ll say it again, I would rather go 0-for-30 than go 0-for-9 because if you stop shooting them that means you lost confidence. It’s just my biggest mindset right there, just sticking with that. You can’t ever lose confidence no matter what the situation is because now you’re really not giving yourself an opportunity to go out there and make a shot.”

3. The Dragon picked it up in the second half and showed why he’s even when he’s not feeling great he can grind and help. Sometimes you just don’t feel good or aren’t having a good game, but you have to press on. Leaders know how to do that. Dragic proved Friday yet again why he was one.

“I was so tired the first half. The [thin] air, I barely moved,” said Dragic, who was 1 of 7 for two points. “Of course the ball didn’t want to go in. But still my players lifted me up – especially UD who was talking to me ‘Come on G, we need you, the ball is going to go in, keep fighting.’ The second half was totally different for me from the first one. But it’s all a team effort.”

Dragic finished 7-of-17 for the game shooting for 18 points and had more turnovers (5) than assists (3). But he was plus 23 for the game. Waiters was plus 24. Both carried Miami when it mattered.

4. Whiteside won the head-to-head battle with Rudy Gobert. Before Waiters buried the game-tying three-pointer from the corner with 2:45 to play, the Jazz’s All-NBA Second Team center swatted Whiteside’s shot in the paint out bounds. Gobert, who has taken shots at Whiteside on social media, celebrated the block with a little extra pizzazz.

In the end, Whiteside got the last laugh as the Heat won the game.

“I'm so glad Dion hit that three, man, because I shot a jump hook and I thought Rudy Gobert goaltended it,” Whiteside said. “But you know as a shotblocker you don’t ever want the ball to go out of bounds. Young fella move. We kept the possession, Dion hit a three. What did 21 Cyrus say? It’s a win.”

Whiteside also outperformed Gobert, who finished with 12 points (4-of-7 shooting), 12 rebounds, two blocks and minus-12 for the game. Whiteside had eight points, 20 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and finished plus five for the game.

5. James Johnson was invisible. JJ doesn’t have many nights where you hardly see him have an impact, but Friday was one of them.

He didn’t score his first points until the fourth quarter and had just two points (1-of-3 shooting), three rebounds, three assists and four turnovers in 23 minutes worth of work.

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