AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — After finding themselves in an 11-30 hole, the playoffs seemed out of reach.
But on Tuesday night, the Heat (36-38) found themselves playing a huge game with big playoff implications attached to it. And Miami won it, defeating the Pistons 97-96 at the Palace of Auburn Hills on a game-winning tip-in from center Hassan Whiteside at the buzzer.
“We said this morning that this was going to be a game that we were going to have to play to the last possession just because we understood how desperate they would come in and we were desperate for a win coming off two losses,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It played out that way, and that’s just how crazy these games can be all the way until the end.”
The Heat solidified their hold on the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, moving one game ahead of the No. 9 Bulls and 2.5 games ahead of the No. 10 Pistons (34-41). Miami has now won 25 of its past 33 games since reaching 11-30.
Goran Dragic led the charge for Miami with 28 points, four rebounds and four assists.
Miami led for most of the game, but let a 12-point lead go to waste as the Pistons roared back to lead by as much as four with 30 seconds to play. But the Heat took advantage of some sloppy play from Detroit late in the game to outscore the Pistons 5-0 the rest of the way, which included Whiteside’s dramatic last-second tip in with 0.2 seconds to play.
With Whiteside’s stiched-up right hand still protected by tape and padding, he tipped in the game-winning shot with his “dirty left hand” off a missed shot from Dragic as time expired. It was so close to the buzzer, the officials reviewed the play before confirming the made shot and giving the Heat the win.
“Whatever happens, I’m going to chase this rebound like it’s my last,” Whiteside said of his mentality on the last play. “So I was just like trying to get a hand on it any way I could.”
Whiteside’s teammates lifted the 7-footer in the air in celebration as soon as the game-winner went in.
“In the NBA, that was special,” Whiteside said of the moment.. “It happened so fast. Next thing I knew, I tipped it in and I was in the air.”
Detroit’s free fall down the East standings continued. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the way for the Pistons with 25 points.
The Heat will be on the court again Wednesday, as they face the Knicks in New York on the second night of a back-to-back to complete their three-game road trip.
Here are our five takeaways …
The return of the Dragic: The Heat needed a big game from Goran Dragic on Tuesday and he delivered. Dragic finished with 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting, four rebounds and four assists. It ended Dragic’s mini-slump, as he was averaging 14.8 points on 33.8 percent shooting over his previous four games — all without his injured backcourt mate Dion Waiters by his side. Dragic’s solid performance is a good sign for Miami. With eight regular-season games remaining and the Heat’s playoff fate on the line, Miami needs its starting point guard down the stretch especially since there is still no timetable for Waiters’ return from a sprained left ankle.
“Goran is a great player. None of us were concerned about that,” Spoelstra said of Dragic’s recent struggles. “That’s the ebb and flow of the NBA season. You’re not going to play great every single night. He’s a big focal point now. Teams know that so they try to take him out of his normal comfort zone. But he really wanted to put his fingerprints all over this game and have no regrets about it.”
Hassan Whiteside is all about winning: The impressive streaks came to an end for Hassan Whiteside. The Heat’s center entered the contest with 19 consecutive games with double-figure rebounds (longest streak in team history). Whiteside had also collected 15 consecutive double-doubles (the longest streak in team history). Whiteside couldn’t keep those streaks alive, as he finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. But none of that mattered because Whiteside made the biggest shot of the game, a game-winning tip-in at the buzzer. Whiteside keeps growing as a player and leader.
“I just come out here and try to give the best I can regardless of one hand or not,” Whiteside said. “I just try to come out here and rebound and be effective.”
Rodney McGruder, the scorer: Rodney McGruder is known for his defense, but the rookie contributed offensively in Detroit. McGruder finished with 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. With Waiters out, opposing defenses have been able to throw more defenders at Dragic. But McGruder made Detroit pay for leaving him alone, scoring a lot of his baskets on opportunistic cuts to the basket. When McGruder finishes with double-digit points, the Heat are 10-7 this season.
The struggling Pistons continue to struggle: This is getting ugly for Detroit. The Pistons are struggling at a very bad time — the final stretch of the season. Detroit has now lost eight of their past nine games. Tuesday’s loss to Miami was especially painful, as the Pistons are battling the Heat for the East’s eighth playoff spot. Before the game, Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy said, “It’s not the end of the road if we lose tonight, but you can see the end of the road from there.” The Pistons are now approaching the end of that road.
Playoff race update: The Heat’s grip on the Eastern Conference’s eighth playoff spot got a little stronger Tuesday. With the win, Miami moved one game ahead of the idle No. 9 Bulls and 2.5 games ahead of the No. 10 Pistons. As far as the teams ahead of the Heat, Miami is now just one game behind the No. 7 Pacers.