Short-term memory helps Heat’s Mr. Clutch – Dion Waiters – sink Celtics in final three minutes

Miami’s Dion Waiters reacts after scoring during the final minutes of Miami’s victory over Boston Wednesday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

MIAMI – If Dion Waiters truly is one of the best closers in the game – which the metrics suggest – then why not start acting like a true closer?

They say a baseball closer’s best friend (besides a 100-mph fastball) is short-term memory. That is exactly what Waiters had when it came to his worst outing as a member of the Miami Heat on Sunday.

Following Waiters’ 26-point effort in Wednesday’s 104-98 victory that snapped Boston’s 16-game winning streak, I attempted to ask him about that game, one in which he missed all 10 of his shots and went scoreless for the first time as a member of the Heat during an embarrassing home loss to the Pacers. Before I ended the thought, Waiters interrupted.

“What game? We played Sunday? I don’t remember that,” he said. “I didn’t know we played. I was watching the Eagles game. I know they won, though.”

Waiters smiled. … probably as much about his home town Eagles’ 9-1 record.

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Waiters was solely responsible late for stopping a slide that could have led to another disheartening loss. After Miami built an 18-point lead in the second quarter and led by 15 with eight minutes remaining, the Heat suddenly found themselves clinging to a one-point lead.

Enter the man who coach Erik Spoelstra has determined has “irrational confidence.” In the final three minutes Waiters clearly wanted the ball in his hands and was not about to give it up.

Exactly what this team, which lacks a go-to, bonified All-Star, needs.

In a span of 2:20, Waiters scored eight of Miami’s 10 points, draining two 3-pointers and streaking down the middle for an emphatic dunk off a Josh Richardson in-bounds pass with 36 ticks to play that sealed the win.

The only points not scored by Waiters were a Hassan Whiteside follow on a Waiters miss. In all, Waiters took six shots during that stretch, making three.

“Never a doubt in my mind,” tri-captain James Johnson said when asked about Waiters taking over. “He’s one of the best closers I’ve ever played with or against.

Waiters was asked if Crunch Time is becoming Waiters Time and thought of it as a rhetorical question.

“Ya’ll ask me just to get a reaction,” he said, smiling. “Ya’ll know what I’m going to say. You know what time it is, man. Philly Cheese.”

Each basket belongs on a highlight reel:

* The first three,  over Jayson Tatum, hit the side of the rim, bounced high in the air, caught the top of the backboard and somehow fell through.

“He’s living good,” Johnson said. “That’s what you always say when you get those kind of rolls.”

* Then, 42 seconds later, Waiters stepped back on Al Horford and swished a three from in front of the Heat bench. The key to the play, according to Waiters, was keeping his dribble against the big man.

“Coach gets mad at me a lot because normally I jump in the air to try and do something,” he said. “He always gets on me, ‘keep your dribble, keep your dribble. Worst case scenario the big is going to have to stay on you and then stretch back out.’

“It was so crazy I was about to really jump in the air and try to make a pass. I’m like, ‘man, keep your dribble.’ Telling myself in my head, ‘keep your dribble. See what happens.’”

* With 36 seconds to play and the Heat taking the ball out from under the basket, Waiters flew past Kyrie Irving and received a perfect pass from Richardson for the two-hand dunk.

Three examples – to go along with a handful last season including clutch threes against Golden State, Brooklyn and Cleveland – illustrating why Waiters is option No. 1 when the game is on the line.

And should be.

Just one/tenth of a point separates Waiters from Irving and LeBron James for the best clutch players (last five minutes in which point differential is five points or less) in the league. Irving and James are averaging 5.4 points and Waiters is at 5.3. Waiters’ field goal percentage is .593 (16 of 27) in those situations, which also is third behind James (.656) and Irving (.615) among players who have attempted more than 15 shots.

Spoelstra, though, was more pleased with Waiters’ decision making than his late-game heroics. The Heat have been trying to harness Waiters some this season after his turnovers were at a career high. During a recent four game stretch Waiters gave away the ball 19 times, boosting his turnovers to 3.3 a game.

In the last three that number is four, including one in 36 minutes against Boston.

“He has great confidence,” Spoelstra said. “It’s about learning better decision making and responsibility with the ball during the course of the game, to make plays for our team. And I thought he was reading the defense better, being more aggressive and patient and persistent, getting to what we wanted to get to, rather than just bailing out on those shots.

“I thought this was one of his better games throughout.”

The challenge now – not just for Waiters but for the entire team – is to sustain this momentum and develop consistency. In the last four games Miami has lost to Washington at home, beat the Wizards on the road, was embarrassed by Indiana in a 25-point home loss and defeated the team with the best record in the league.

Next up is a four-game road trip starting Friday in Minnesota that includes three teams (Timberwolves, Cavaliers, Knicks) with winning records.

“We need to forget this game,” said Goran Dragic, who led the Heat with 27 points. “It’s not like that we won 10 straight. It’s only one game. The history shows that we have a good win and then we have the worst game possible. We just need to. … have the same desire, the same stuff that we did (against Boston).”

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