MIAMI – After hearing for three days how their defense let them down in their season-opening loss at the Magic, the Miami Heat came out with energy and effort in their home opener Saturday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
But after building a 21-point lead in the third quarter, Miami (1-1) allowed the Pacers (1-2) back into the game and held on for a 112-108 victory. Indiana got within two points with 13 seconds to play, but James Johnson’s two free throws with 11.7 seconds remaining sealed the win.
Goran Dragic led the Heat with 23 points and backcourt mate Dion Waiters added 19. The two combined for three consecutive baskets late as the Pacers were making a push, helping the Heat maintain their lead.
“It felt good,” said Kelly Olynyk, playing in his first regular season home game as a member of the Heat. “I think as a team we played better together, helped each other on both ends of the floor. We are able to get in a little bit of rhythm.”
The Heat were playing without center Hassan Whiteside, who suffered a bruised left knee in the season opener Wednesday in Orlando. He remains day-to-day.
The game was the start of a six-game home stand for the Heat. They face Atlanta on Monday.
Here are our five takeaways:
Surprise five: With Whiteside ailing, coach Erik Spoelstra was forced to make a change to his starting lineup. But nobody expected him to switch out two starters from Wednesday’s opener. Spoelstra went small, starting 6-foot-8 forwards Jordan Mickey and James Johnson down low, bringing Kelly Olynyk off the bench. Olynyk and Whiteside, two 7-footers, started the season opener. The unit outscored the Pacers by a point at the start of the game, then lengthened Miami’s 63-50 halftime lead by outscoring Indiana 21-16 in the first 6 ½ minutes of the third quarter. Mickey, signed in August, scored eight points and had six rebounds in his Heat debut.
“With Hassan out, I just didn’t feel like we could mess around and J.J. needs to get out there and be out on the floor as many minutes as possible,” Spoelstra said. “I didn’t want to risk that having him coming off the bench. Jordan has been doing enough to impress us and short minutes just to get the game going, but those are always important minutes.”
Backcourt is back: Dragic and Waiters had a miserable opening night, combining to shoot just 13-of-36 with a minus-15. The backcourt mates, bounced back Saturday with solid efforts. They combined to score 42 points on 17-of-29 shooting. Waiters came up big in the fourth quarter, with consecutive field goals as Indiana was making its charge. Dragic had extra motivation. It’s rare his parents, who live in Slovenia, see him play an NBA game, but they were in the stands Saturday, visiting their son for a few weeks. They also got to see a touching video tribute the Heat put together that honored Dragic for leading Slovenia to the 2017 EuroBasket championship and being named MVP of the tournament.
Waiters said winning without Whiteside is more difficult because his presences helps the guards. “(Whiteside) makes the game easier for us, especially for attacking guards who are able to get down in the paint and at the end of the day, the big got to make a decision,” Waiters said. “Most of the time, a lot of bigs don’t want their guy scoring. So it opens up the floor for us.”
Defense tightens, somewhat: Spoelstra was not happy with the defensive effort in the season opener. The Magic shot 48 percent and had 56 points in the paint. Saturday didn’t start much better with the Pacers scoring 31 in the first quarter. But the defense (and the overall energy) definitely picked up starting in the second quarter as the Heat outscored Indiana 37-19 and even though the Pacers picked up the pace, Miami played well enough defensively to hold on. The Pacers shot 44.8 percent but they matched the Magic’s total from Wednesday with 56 points in the paint, a number that is more understandable without Whiteside in the lineup.
“When we built the lead our defense was active, our deflections, hands, multiple efforts, that was more in the direction of where we want to get with our identity,” Spoelstra said.
Nice first impression: Between the preseason and regular season, Olynyk has bounced back and forth between the bench and the starting lineup. After starting the season opener, he came off the bench in the home opener and sparked a 13-0 run in the second unit with eight points and a steal. Olynyk finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists. He made half of his 10 field-goal attempts and was 3-of-5 on 3-pointers.
“I though he was really comfortable playing with the second unit,” Spoelstra said. “I thought it was his best game on both ends since he’s been with us. This is what we were hoping for, his full skill set.”
Tri-captains: The Heat have appointed three captains this year, none being their highest-paid player. Udonis Haslem, in his 15th season with the team, remains a captain and he is joined by Dragic and James Johnson. Neither have been with the Heat as long as Whiteside, who is starting his fourth season in the organization and is in the second year of a four-year, $98 million contract. Dragic has been with Miami 2 ½ years and Johnson is starting his second season in the organization.
“UD will be a lifetime captain for however long he plays,” Spoelstra said. “He’ll be the forever captain. We all felt that it was just time to add more captains. Everyone was looking for Goran because he’s ready for that next step of leadership. JJ was on the most special things that I’ve been a part of in my coaching career. To people on the outside it might have been surprising but when we actually named him captain it was a no brainer””