Heat Check

Heat getting better where it matters most in the playoffs – on defense and at home

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade slaps Chicago Bulls forward Jerian Grant in the face after stealing the ball from him in the fourth quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 29, 2018.
Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade slaps Chicago Bulls forward Jerian Grant in the face after stealing the ball from him in the fourth quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 29, 2018. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 103-92 victory over the Chicago Bulls Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena:

1. The Heat (41-35) can clinch a playoff spot Saturday with either a win over Brooklyn or a Detroit loss to the Knicks.

Miami, which leads Milwaukee (40-35) by a halfgame for the No. 7 seed in the East, could have locked up a postseason berth had the Pistons (35-40) lost to the Wizards (41-34). Instead, Detroit won and helped the Heat pick up a game on Washington, the No. 6 seed, which now holds only a half game lead over Miami.

The Heat, which plays its next four games against the Nets (24-51), Hawks (21-54) and Knicks (27-49), own a better division record (9-5) and conference record (28-19) than Washington (7-6 in division, 26-20 vs. East). So, Miami would will win the decisive tiebreaker for the No. 6 seed if it wins its last five games against Eastern Conference teams and finishes with the same record as the Wizards.

Washington closes out the season against three playoff teams (Rockets, Cavaliers and Celtics) and four cupcakes (Hornets, Bulls, Hawks and Magic).

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was happy with the way the Heat came out and played against the Bulls, who lost their seventh in a row.

“You play a team that’s playing for something different, not necessarily playing for something different, but they’re just in a different place than you are – those can be dangerous games because you get tempted into thinking there’s going to be a knockout punch early,” Spoelstra said. “You have to expect every game in this league to be a 48-minute game where you’re required to compete and play at a high level. Any time you start to think otherwise or try to shortcut that process, you end up getting bit in the rear. That’s happened to us a couple times or a handful of times this year with teams in their situation. But tonight I liked our approach.

“I liked the shootaround today and the commitment to be able to defend, hold them under 40 percent and under 100 points. And to do that two games in a row is something that we wanted to do regardless where the team was in the standings.”

Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson leaps around Chicago Bulls forward Jerian Grant in the second quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 29, 2018. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

2. Why is it so hard for this Heat team to stay healthy?

Miami has had 14 players combine to miss 233 games this season. Tyler Johnson, who had started 11 consecutive games at shooting guard, sprained his right ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return after the half. Johnson was not available after the game for comment, but Spoelstra didn’t seem to be very concerned about Johnson’s ankle.

“It looked similar to the one in Chicago with [Robin] Lopez. But it wasn’t, at least as we know right now, initially it wasn’t as bad as that one,” Spoelstra said. “He was able to walk out of here without a limp. He did treatment the entire second half. We didn’t want to risk anything in the second half. He wanted to play, but [trainer] Jay [Sabol] said it’s best just to hold him and re-evaluate [Friday].”

With the Heat about to lock itself into a playoff spot, it is likely Miami will not rush to get Johnson back on the court. Rodney McGruder started the second half in Johnson’s place Thursday and had five points and three rebounds in 12 minutes. Dwyane Wade, who has come off the bench in every game he has played with the Heat, said he could play more if needed to make up for Johnson’s absence.

“It’s the NBA man. It’s a lot of games. It’s tough to get your whole team healthy all the time,” said Josh Richardson, who led the Heat with 22 points Thursday. “I know Tyler will bounce back really quickly. So I’m not worried.”

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, left, grabs a defensive rebound in front of Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 29, 2018, in Miami. Joel Auerbach AP

3. Hassan Whiteside played a little over 19 minutes and had eight points, seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and two blocks in his return from a 9-game absence.

Spoelstra directed Goran Dragic to push the pace with Whiteside and he felt the 7-footer played with the necessary energy needed.

“His conditioning was a little bit better than I anticipated,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s been doing a lot of work behind the scenes and I thought he was able to play with the pace that we’re playing at. He had four assists. So we were able to play some offense through him. He made some nice easy plays on handoffs. It’s just good to have him back out there. He clearly gives us something different.”

Said Dragic: “H, he was running with us. Of course he was a little bit tired. He didn’t play for a while. But you know it's nice to have him back and he's going to continue to get better physically and we need him.”

Whiteside said it felt good to shake the rust off.

“I forgot how fast it was in an NBA game, man,” he said. “Them guy were flying around. But it took me awhile to get acclimated. My wind felt straight it’s just them guys were moving around, it’s just getting back used to it, getting back into a rhythm of just making shots, just that aspect of it. I think I’m getting better at it because I haven’t played basketball in awhile.”

Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow looks to the basket in the second quarter as Chicago Bulls Jerian Grany guards at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 29, 2018. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

4. The Heat has held its last two opponents under 37 percent shooting – something it hasn’t done since Jan. 2016.

“I think we’ve started communicating a lot better lately,” Richardson said. “We were having a lot of mess ups earlier, two guys on the same person and not doing the right assignments. We’re just talking ourselves out of bad situations. That’s definitely [taken] our defense to another level.”

The Bulls were only 6 for 26 from three-point range Thursday. On Tuesday, the Cavaliers were 4 for 26 from beyond the arc against the Heat.

“We’ve had several of these type of games that should suggest we would have a better overall defensive ranking for the season,” Spoelstra said. “You look at the top teams in this league, we’ve held the majority of them under 40 percent and under 100 points. The challenge is to do it against a team like this that’s not in a playoff race and to be able to try and do it two games in a row. And you can certainly make a case coming off of the passionate, emotional, enthusiastic game that we had against Cleveland, one of our better performances in at least the last several weeks, that this could be the proverbial trap game. But the approach today was very professional, starting with shootaround and throughout the course of the game.”

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade shoots over Chicago Bulls guard Denzel Valantine in the second quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 29, 2018. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

5. Make it eight straight wins at home and 11 of the last 12 inside the AAA for Miami.

A win over the Nets on Saturday will mark the Heat’s first nine-game winning streak since March 2013 when the Big 3 was still rocking this place.

“Getting D-Wade back, he brought a lot of energy to the arena,” said Justise Winslow, who had 13 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes of the bench. “I think especially us young guys, we’re feeding off that energy that the crowd is bringing.

“We’ve kind of flip flopped. Early in the year we weren’t playing that well at home and we were winning on the road. It’s kind of switched. It’s going to be tough to win a seven game series, not looking like we’re going to have home court, we got to be better on the road, try to steal a game and protect home court. These games are important to us, just continue to build those habits every day and try to be at the top of our game come playoffs.”

Wade said it was kind of Winslow to give him the credit, but he disagrees.

“I’m definitely not going to take credit for that,” Wade said. “I just feel like we’re playing well at home. We’ve got very deep team. I think everybody plays their role. We have a lot of confidence in this building.

“A lot of teams, when you’re not at the top, you’re a different team at home than you are on the road,” he continued. “The teams that are championship teams, that have won championships, that have been there, they’re pretty consistent. The teams that are trying to build, they are better at home than they are on the road, for the most part. I definitely think on the road, our game travels. We play good games on the road. We play close games on the road. We’ve just got to do a little bit more to figure out ways to win, because we’re playing play very well at home. But I definitely love the energy that’s been building. Each game, there’s excitement in this building.”