CHARLOTTE – If the Miami Heat wind up making the playoffs, they may look back at the 9:14 mark of the third quarter of Wednesday’s game at Charlotte.
Miami was clinging to a three point lead when the Hornets surrounded Hassan Whiteside and appeared to hit him from all angles. Cody Zeller was charged with the foul and Whiteside responded by flailing his arms and being charged with a technical foul after striking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
After the free throw, Whiteside, who was scoreless until then, dominated the rest of way. He scored the next six points as Miami embarked on a 9-0 run and never looked back. The Heat eventually stretched the lead to 17 points and hung on for a crucial 112-99 victory at the Spectrum Center, taking over in the second half after leading by one point at halftime.
“We knew both teams would be desperate and that first half was so competitive,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It was one punch after another, both teams taking shots in the face.
“And then we were able to just knock down some shots, get some shots.”
Whiteside finished with 13 points, 20 rebounds, his 54th double-double of the season, which extends his franchise record.
Whiteside was asked if Zeller’s foul and his technical foul made him more angry.
“What do you think?” he said. “I’m out there playing with one hand. I’m just trying to contribute as much as I can with one hand and try to get rebounds.”
The victory moves the Heat back into the No. 8 seed in the East with four games remaining. Miami (38-40) is tied with Chicago and Indiana. After tie-breakers, the Bulls are seventh followed by Miami and Indiana.
The Hornets (36-43) fall to 2.5 games behind the Bulls, Heat and Pacers.
Miami buried the Hornets behind a franchise-record 21 threes. Miami finished 21-of-40 from long distance, six from James Johnson and five from Goran Dragic.
Dragic led Miami with 33 points. Johnson, making his first start of the season, scored 26, equaling his season high.
Dragon on fire: Goran Dragic showed why he had been the Heat’s best and most consistent player this season. He finished 13-of-20 from the floor and 5-of-8 on 3 pointers. He started the 3-point barrage by making his first two early in the game and never let up. Dragic was just one point shy of his season, and Heat, high.
“In our minds, we were saying we need to keep the pace up because it was a back-to-back for them and especially in the third quarter we came out aggressive and made some big shots,” Dragic said.
An angry Whiteside is a good Whiteside: Whiteside attempted one shot in the first half and didn’t score his first points of the game until 8:53 remained in the third quarter (26 seconds after his technical). But from that point on, he was unstoppable, especially on the boards. He had eight points and 11 rebounds in the third quarter on the way to his seventh game of at least 20 rebounds and 35th game with 15 or more.
“Coach told me, He said ‘H we’re going to need 20 rebounds from you,’” Whiteside said. “I said, ‘OK. Check. Somebody order 20 rebounds and I’ll deliver.’’’
Three point clinic: The Heat played the Hornets three times this season prior to Wednesday’s game. They made 17 3-pointers in their lone win and 24 total in the two losses. The 3 is always there against the Hornets because of the way they like to pack the paint on defense and Miami took advantage of that Wednesday. The Heat were hot from the start, making eight of their first 12 triples and never cooled down. In the end, four Heat players made at least three 3 pointers.
“In order to be able to get those open threes you have to aggressive, you have to execute with precision and able to get opportunities in the paint,” Spoelstra said. “Our execution was better, guys were very unselfish making the extra pass from good to great.”
JJ to the rescue: James Johnson received his first start of the year after coming off the bench for his first 71 games and likely will hold onto the spot for however long the season lasts. He replaced Luke Babbitt, who suffered a strained hip flexor Sunday against the Nuggets. Johnson scored the first basket of the game had six early points and finished by equaling his season high. He was 10-of-12 from the field and 6-of-7 on threes.
“I played with these guys a lot, I’ve been with that group but deeper into the game,” Johnson said. “I was good to start and see what that feels like.”
Playoff picture brightens: The Heat entered one-half game behind the Bulls and Pacers, who held the last two playoff spots in the East. All three now are tied with the seventh best record in the East and just 1.5 games behind No. 6 Atlanta. Chicago holds the seventh spot by virtue of the three-way tie-breaker and Miami is No. 8 with the Pacers on the outside looking in. All three teams have four games remaining.