Five takeaways from the Heat’s thrilling 106-105 come-from-behind win over the Hornets Saturday night in Charlotte minus point guard Goran Dragic (bruised left knee), which helped Miami (27-19) avoid back-to-back losses for the first time since Dec. 6 and maintain a one-game lead over Washington for fourth-place in the Eastern Conference:
1. Kelly Olynyk to the rescue. Again. Before we get to the 3.7 seconds of insanity that turned a five-point deficit into a 105-all tie, we have to start at the end of the game and how the 7-footer from Toronto helped the Heat once again pull out a tough game late and improve to 20-9 in the clutch this season (those 20 wins are tied with Boston for most in the league).
Olynyk scored 14 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter including the game-winning free throw with two-tenths of a second left when he grabbed a defensive rebound on a Kemba Walker miss and drove the length of the floor before drawing a foul on Dwight Howard. It’s a play coach Erik Spoelstra said he’d never practiced with Olynyk.
“The one at the end, that is our modus operandi when Goran gets it, possibly when JJ gets it off the glass – that they can push,” Spoelstra said. “I saw it end up in KO’s hands and he just took off, which we never really practiced it with him doing. We practiced it a lot with our starting point guard, who wasn’t even in the game. It probably caught all of us by surprise including them. It looked like he actually had a chance to get there and then Howard closed the ground and we were fortune enough to get the foul.”
Howard agreed with Spoelstra about that last part.
“He had already lost the ball and was falling before I even pushed him,” Howard said of Olynyk. “I just thought that it was something that shouldn’t have been called at that point in the game. They should have just let the clock run out and let the teams duel it out in overtime.”
But it didn’t happen because Olynyk made another series of big plays when Miami needed him to most. Don’t forget the Heat was down 83-73 after three quarters and floundering. Olynyk started the fourth quarter by hitting back-to-back three-pointers and setting the tone for Miami, which outscored Charlotte 33-22 in the fourth period after being outscored 35-16 in a nine-turnover third quarter.
On James Johnson’s dunk out of a timeout with 37.2 seconds to play – it was Olynyk who found Johnson wide open for the slam.
“Sometimes you've got to be lucky in this game,” Spoelstra said of Olynyk’s final play. “But it also speaks to his versatility and fearlessness.”
2. The Reggie Miller-like moment that tied the score at 105 was a moment of beauty between James Johnson and Josh Richardson. Miller, a Hall of Famer, you might remember scored scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to beat the Knicks in a 1995 NBA playoff game. What happened Saturday night in Charlotte brought back memories of that.
With 37.2 seconds to go and the Heat trailing 105-100, Spoelstra called for Olynyk to catch the ball on an inbounds pass and he ended up finding Johnson wide open for a dunk. On the ensuing Hornets inbounds pass, Richardson ripped the ball out of Nicolas Batum’s hands as soon as he caught it, turned and found Johnson wide open for a three-pointer. It was five Heat points in 3.7 seconds that absolutely stunned the Hornets and tied the game at 105.
So how did it happen? “I saw him taking the ball out,” Richardson said explained of Hornets forward Marvin Williams. “I was really running to [cover] Kemba [Walker]. But I saw him throw the ball into [Nicolas Batum], and I was next to him on the way over to him. So I got in there and went for the ball and I didn’t go straight for the foul. You always got to go for the ball first.”
Johnson ended up sinking the three-pointer and finishing with a season-high 22 points, six rebounds and a team-high seven assists in the win.
“The good thing about a team like us is everybody has so much confidence to take the big shot,” Richardson said. “So when I stole it, I looked around and then I saw JJ wide open and I tossed it to him and when he shot it I knew it was good.”
Said Johnson: “There’s some players that won’t be denied and on this team we’ve got a lot of dogs with a lot of grit that love winning. I love it when we’re winning like that. So there’s no need to change it. When we’ve got guys out, there’s different guys who have to step up. And I didn’t want to wait until somebody else [did something] to deal with it. I wanted to take the onus on myself, regardless of whether it was putting the ball in the bucket or just putting my imprint all over the defense.”
3. Wayne Ellington led the Heat with 26 points in his first start of the season. With Dragic out, Spoelstra was forced to do something he had been trying to avoid all season – put Ellington into the starting lineup. The 30-year-old veteran delivered, making three of his six three-pointers in the fourth quarter and helping keep the Heat in it as it rallied from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit.
“I knew that I wanted to be a little more aggressive with Goran being down,” Ellington said. “But my mindset [coming off the bench or starting] doesn’t change. It was just that I needed to start the game the way I come off the bench. So that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
That type of work ethic is why Spoelstra loves Ellington and why the Heat could have to make some hard decisions when it comes to the salary cap this summer. He’s proving to be worth all of the $6 million he’s earning this season.
“Wayne is the true embodiment of a pro,” Spoelstra said. “When you talk to young players and you say ‘Hey we have to teach you how to become a pro,’ Wayne embodies all those qualities that you want to pass along to a young player. He’s reliable. He’s always early. He’s got a great work ethic, exudes an incredible, positive energy always whether the game is going well for him or not, whether he’s playing or not. I just love the guy. If I would have told him ‘Hey we're not going to start you and we’re not going to play you until the middle of the second quarter’ he would have looked at me and said ‘OK, check. Whatever it takes to win.’ ”
4. Despite nine third quarter turnovers, the Heat did a pretty good job over the other three quarters protecting the basketball. You knew it was going to be tough running offense with Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters all out, but all things considered Richardson, Johnson, Justise Winslow and Derrick Walton Jr. did a decent job not making this one of the worst nights of the season when it comes to turnovers.
Miami finished with 14 turnovers for the game, which led to 12 Hornets points (Charlotte had eight turnovers that led to 11 Miami points). Why are 14 turnovers a key number for the Heat? Miami is 9-11 when it has 15 turnovers or more and 18-8 when it has 14 or less.
Richardson deserves much of the credit for that keeping the number under 15. He had the ball in his hands a ton and was the starting point guard with Dragic out. Richardson finished with 17 points, three rebounds, five assists, a steal and two blocks and had only three turnovers in 36 minutes of work while also playing stellar defense on Walker, who finished with 22 points on 10 of 25 shooting.
“I felt alright,” Richardson said of his point-guard play. “Just trying to get guys going.”
5. Heat’s fourth quarter disposition was important for Spoelstra. After blowing a 16-point lead in Brooklyn Friday, Spoelstra was pleased to see his team didn’t fold in the fourth quarter a day later when it probably could have used playing on the second night of a back-to-back as an execuse.
“It’s not necessarily about that final score,” Spoelstra said. “It’s more about the feeling ‘OK, we did it on our terms in the fourth quarter.’ It didn’t look like it was headed that way in the third quarter. They just lit us up. It looked a lot like last night. Guys took ownership of it. Our defensive intensity in the fourth quarter was the best part, the most consistent part of it during the game. That’s when it's toughest. That’s the identity we want to stay true to regardless of what happens there at the end, regardless if shots ar egoing down or not. I think no matter what would have happened we would have felt better about that part of it.
“You use the regular season to harden yourselves. We’ve been through a tough stretch. This would have been an easy one just to say we had an emotional game last night, had to travel, whatever how many games we've had to play in seven nights. You use these opportunities to test yourself, measure yourself and see if you can develop some competitive character collectively when the chips are down. I just really like the way the guys responsed competitively, again, regardless of what happened at the end. We had to get a lot of good bounces and a lot of good breaks and guys stepped up. Our effort in the fourth quarter makes those guys feel good, but it makes their coaches feel good too.”
▪ In case you wondering, no, Hassan Whiteside (10 points, 14 rebounds) didn’t play in the fourth quarter Saturday. Olynyk, Richardson and rookie Bam Adebayo played all 12 fourth quarter minutes for Miami.