CLEVELAND — The Heat were so close to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
How close? Miami trailed 91-89 with the ball and 4.7 seconds to play.
But the Heat (29-22) couldn’t close the deal as James Johnson ran out of time in an effort to get down the court for a game-tying layup. All-Star forward LeBron James made Johnson hesitate long enough near the basket to have the time expire on Miami’s hopes of stealing a win.
The result was a 91-89 Heat loss to the Cavaliers (30-20) on Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena. The loss dropped Miami to 1.5 games behind Cleveland for third-place in the East.
“I was going downhill against [James],” Johnson said of the final play. “I liked what I was doing. The only thing is he’s LeBron and he made a great read, and his defense prevailed that time. You got to take it for what it is. Tomorrow I’ll probably be doing 100 transition drills.”
The Heat’s offense struggled, shooting 3-of-28 from 3-point range and committing 20 turnovers. Not even quality defense that limited the Cavaliers to 35 percent shooting was enough to overcome Miami’s subpar offense.
“I mean that’s why we really wanted to get this game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This would have been such a great game to win when you play horribly offensively. Whatever it was, 3 for 28, that’s not going to happen every night. But then you still have a chance to win. Again, we’re starting to build some competitive character, to be there at the end, shooting what we did from the 3-point line, the free-throw line and then the turnovers on top of that. These are those really gratifying wins if you can find a way. But we didn’t.”
Goran Dragic led the Heat with a team-high 18 points, but even he was inefficient. Dragic made just 7 of his 17 shots.
As expected, LeBron James was Cleveland’s catalyst with 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Here are our five takeaways …
Elite defense not enough: The Heat’s defense has been trending in the right direction for a few weeks. But on Wednesday, it was elite. Miami limited Cleveland to 91 points on 35 percent shooting and forced the Cavaliers into 16 turnovers. But not even that was enough to overcome a poor offensive performance, as the Heat shot 3-of-28 from 3-point range and made just 14-of-25 free throws while committing 20 turnovers. Still, holding down the Cavaliers’ offense is an accomplishment. Cleveland entered with the league’s fourth-best offensive rating. Quality defense is starting to become a trend for Miami, as it entered Wednesday with the league’s second-best defensive rating since Jan. 20.
“I mean there are a lot of things that I really liked about our team tonight,” Spoelstra said. “We did not play well, at all, offensively. It was probably one of our poorer games on that side of the floor in a while, in weeks maybe. We missed some open ones, but also missed free throws, 20 turnovers. Just very inefficient. It was pretty surprising that we still had a chance there at the end, but our defense really stepped up.”
Heat aren’t the third seed, for now: The Heat had a chance to capture sole possession of the third-best record in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, but they couldn’t take advantage. Instead, Miami is now 1.5 games behind No. 3 Cleveland. And the Heat’s grip on the fourth seed is loosening as the Wizards are just one-half game behind them. Miami has two games remaining on its four-game trip, on Friday against the 76ers and Saturday against the Pistons.
“In two days is the next one against an opponent [the 76ers] that’s right there behind us,” Dragic said. “We just need to get better. We feel like we’re on the right track. We’re playing hard.”
Starting lineup watch: The Heat’s starting lineup of Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic have had more bad games together than good ones. This five-man group entered with the third-worst plus-minus on the team among five-man lineups at minus-24 in 71 minutes this season. The lineup was a plus-one in 13 minutes against the Cavaliers. Spoelstra did not go to this lineup in crunch time, as he decided to play Kelly Olynyk instead of Whiteside at center down the stretch. Spoelstra has said he’s going to stick with this group for now, but things are clearly fluid when it comes to the Heat’s current starting five.
Dwyane Wade watch: Before Wednesday’s game, Dwyane Wade said he still wants to end his NBA career with the Heat. During the game, Wade struggled against his former team. He finished with nine points on 2-of-8 shooting. Wade is now averaging 16.4 in five games against the Heat since he left Miami in the summer of 2016, and he holds a 4-1 record against his old squad. Now, whether he ends up finishing his career with the Heat? We’ll see. Wade will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He’s currently in the middle of a one-year, $2.3 million veteran’s minimum contract he signed to play for the Cavaliers.
Free-throw struggles: In a game that included 63 free throws, Miami struggled to make most of its shots from the charity stripe. The Heat shot 14-of-25 from the free-throw line, a statistic that obviously played a big part in their loss. On the other side, the Cavaliers shot 29-of-38 on free throws. The game was decided by just two points and Miami gave up 11 points at the line. It’s not fair to blame free-throw shooting as the lone reason for the Heat’s loss, but it’s definitely one of the biggest reasons.