Five takeaways from the shorthanded Heat’s 99-90 loss to the Rockets Monday night in Houston:
1. Yes, this road trip ended with some sense of regret. But Miami is in a good place overall.
The Miami Heat is no longer a team content with simply contending with the best teams in the league. Coach Erik Spoelstra has gotten his team to believe they are one of the best in the league and finishing this five-game road trip with a 2-3 record still stung – not because of what happened Monday in Houston, but earlier in losses to Chicago and Brooklyn.
“Our team is certainly developing some grit,” Spoelstra said. “We also had a couple tough losses on this road trip. There’s nothing to regret about this game. We’ll learn from it. We’ll learn how to handle those kind of situations, execute better to be able to finish games against a defense that steps up the pressure. But that’s why you look back on a couple of the other losses when we had opportunities to really control it and if we bring the same kind of disposition in those games, the end of the roadtrip could look different from a results standpoint.
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“But, look, there’s a lot of good things going on. Our locker room knows that and we’ve got to get back, get some rest and maybe we’ll get some guys back, get ready for another battle Thursday night.”
Said Wayne Ellington, who was 4 of 13 shooting for 13 points Monday: “We finished it with grit. We finished it with character. We lost, so it hurts, it stings. But at the same time, we had a good road trip. We improved on some things. We also showed some things about ourselves. We got toughness. No matter who’s on the floor with us, no matter who’s with us in the game, it’s always next man up. We have enough.”
2. Forget the final score for a second – what the Heat did defensively against James Harden and one of the best offenses in the league was impressive.
Harden, the league's leading scorer, hit the big buckets late and still finished with a game-high 28 points to lead Houston to victory. But he finished 10 of 26 from the field and only got to the free throw line four times.
Not only did the league's second-highest scoring team in the league (114.4 points per game) finish under 100 for only the fourth time this season, but it wasn’t until an 11-2 run over the final three minutes of the game that Houston really distanced itself from Miami, which was playing without point guard Goran Dragic and shooting guard Tyler Johnson yet again.
“The thing about that is it’s not like we took the air out of the ball,” Spoelstra said. “We weren’t walking the ball forward and running a four corner offense. What you saw was a lot of possessions where we were defending them to the end of the [shot] clock, the first 20 seconds going off and then the final four seconds they would generate a look from there. So that probably slowed the pace of the game down as much as anything. There’s a lot of things I liked about it. But you do have to credit them. The strongest part of their game were the final 3 minutes and we weren't able to make those plays.”
Said Ellington: “It was in our wheel house. We held them under 100. That was the game plan. That’s what we needed to do. We just came out a little short.”
3. Harden, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni complimentary of Heat afterward.
Though D’Antoni admitted his team came out a little flat after an emotional win over Golden State on Saturday, he credited the Heat for making things tough for them.
“They’re good,” D’Antoni said of the Heat. “Erik does a great job. [Hassan] Whiteside is back, he’s long, he causes problems, they stand on the perimeter, they got all guys that can switch. So, it just came down to James [Harden] and Chris [Paul] just creating and getting buckets, big buckets. It got us through.”
Said Harden: “They’re a really good team, scrappy team, play hard. Whiteside controls the paint very well, we just have to match their intensity. They did a good job of trying to run you off the three-point line. So, that was kind of tough for us tonight, but defensively that second half we locked up, controlled the game and that was it.”
4. Whiteside put fourth a solid effort, but his game still has a ways to go on the offensive end and the Rockets proved that with some changes defensively in the second half.
Before you could blink, Miami’s starting center had 14 points in the first quarter. He was scoring with ease, finding teammates for buckets and on his way to an impressive statline with 22 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and three steals.
But there was also an eye sore for Whiteside on this night: a career-high matching seven turnovers.
The Rockets clearly played Whiteside differently after he scored 18 points in the first half. They forced the ball out of his hands with double teams and slowed the Heat’s offense down in the third quarter.
“They were putting more people there,” Whiteside explained of his second half struggles. “It was a little more people [in the paint]. Chris Paul was coming late for the steal a lot more.”
It’s something Whiteside has to learn how to handle better.
“That’s always the challenge,” Spoelstra said. “If you’re trying to punish teams in the paint you’re going to be dealing with a lot of quick hands, dealing with double-teams, a lot of intricacies he’ll have to continue to get better with and he will. Then, being able to run offense through him not necessarily in the low post, but the high post, being able to screen and get to the rim and offensive rebound.”
Still, Spoelstra was complimentary of Whiteside overall.
“He did a lot of good things during the course of the game, particularly defensively, which allowed us to really defend their pick-and-roll game probably as well as you can on their homecourt,” Spoelstra said.
5. Turnovers hurt the Heat the most in the end.
Stop me if you’ve heard this line before. Miami finished with 18 of them in the game as a team.
The Heat is 10-12 when it has 15 or more turnovers in a game this season this season and 17-8 when it has fewer than that.
“They stepped up their defense,” Spoelstra said. “We had some tough possessions offensively. We really had to work to generate open looks against them, but we felt like the game was in our wheelhouse. We tied it up then and we were also up 83-81. Just liked the tempo and everything about the game. But they finished and finished in high fashion, making shots and we struggled to get good clean looks on the other end.”