MIAMI — The Heat blamed their defense for Sunday’s loss to the Blazers.
But Miami (35-36) can point to its defense as one of the driving forces behind Tuesday’s 112-97 win over the Suns (22-49) at AmericanAirlines Arena. The Heat have now won 24 of their past 30 games since falling to 11-30.
With Detroit’s loss to Brooklyn on Tuesday, the Heat jumped back into a playoff spot with 11 games remaining in the regular season. Miami began the night just outside the playoffs as the ninth-place team in the Eastern Conference.
Miami limited Phoenix to 41 percent shooting over the final three quarters to outscore the Suns 89-71 during that stretch.
“Good bounce back,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was a productive 24 hours that we had. And I like the way the guys approached this game.”
Seven Heat players finished with double-digit points. Hassan Whiteside led the way with 23 points and 14 rebounds, and Tyler Johnson helped out with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists.
But Whiteside could not finish the game as he exited with 2:08 remaining in the contest with a gash in his right hand after hitting it against the backboard. He walked straight to the locker room as blood dripped from the hand, and he received 13 stitches between his middle finger and ring finger .
Whiteside wasn’t available to the media after the game with his hand injury happening late in the contest.
“It’s a laceration between his fingers,” Spoelstra said minutes after the game. “He’s getting stitched up right now. We’ll know more tomorrow. But wow, those minutes he played he were extremely impactful.”
Marquese Chriss finished with 24 points and seven rebounds for the Suns.
Here are our five takeaways …
Heat defense shows signs of life: The Heat spent Monday’s practice fixing some defensive issues that popped up over their past three games. During that three-game stretch, Miami ranked 27th out of the league’s 30 teams with a defensive rating of 113.1. The Heat allowed 115 points, 112 points and 105 points during this period. But the Heat bounced back to turn in a solid defensive performance against the Suns. Tuesday’s game didn’t get off to a great start, as Phoenix made nine of its 14 shots. From that point on, the Heat found a way to limit the Suns to 39.7 percent shooting. Phoenix also finished with 24 turnovers.
“Our offense has been trending so well and everybody wants to talk about our offense,” Tyler Johnson said. “Our defense started slipping at times, so we just had to get back to our defensive principles. They’re a team who gets out in transition and runs, so I think it was a great test for us.”
Hassan Whiteside wakes up to dominate: Whiteside’s play last week earned him the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week award — the first of his career. But the Heat’s center didn’t get off to such a strong start this week. Whiteside began Tuesday’s game by missing nine of his first 11 shots. After the slow start, Whiteside woke up to finish with 23 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks. He also set a new Heat record for rebounds in a single season in the contest. But after the game, there was concern surrounding Whiteside and his right hand laceration.
“That’s the guy, our pillar who gets us going,” James Johnson said when asked how concerned he is about Whiteside’s injury. “I feel like if he plays like we all know he’s capable of playing, we can’t lose. It’s going to be a huge decision for him and us. We’ve got to get him to play somehow, some way.”
Heat bench continues to impress: Miami can thank its bench for Tuesday’s win. The Heat’s bench finished with 54 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. Tyler Johnson led the charge with 17 points, and Wayne Ellington (11 points), James Johnson (10 points) and Willie Reed (12 points) all helped out. It’s just the continuation of a strong season for Miami’s reserves. The Heat’s bench entered Tuesday ranked seventh in the NBA with 39 points per game. And over the past 10 games, Miami’s bench leads the NBA with 48.4 points per game.
“We talk about it all the time. Can you inspire the team with your play?,” Spoelstra said when asked about the Heat’s bench. “That’s not necessarily scoring the basketball. But your effort, your energy, your activity, that can inspire the next guy to match that. That’s what you saw with that second unit. They become ignitable.”
J-Rich moving in right direction: With Dion Waiters out indefinitely due to a sprained left ankle, the Heat are relying on Josh Richardson to help fill the void. In Miami’s first game without Waiters on Sunday, Richardson scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting. The second-year guard followed up that performance with 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting Tuesday. Before this two-game stretch, Richardson had not finished a game with double-digit points since Jan. 3. So this is an encouraging development for the Heat.
Heat end night as playoff team: This Eastern Conference playoff race is becoming dizzying. Sunday’s loss to the Blazers pushed the Heat from seventh to ninth in the Eastern Conference. Just two days later, the Heat’s win over the Suns paired with the Pistons’ loss to the Nets moved Miami back into a playoff spot and one game ahead of Detroit. The Heat entered Tuesday’s game with the same exact record as the Pistons, but the head-to-head tiebreaker had Detroit in the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Miami could move up to the seventh seed by the end of the night if the Bucks lose to the Trail Blazers, a game that began at 10 p.m.