Five takeaways: Heat begin ’24 game sprint’ with painful overtime loss to Pelicans

Miami Heat forward James Johnson, center, gets rid of the ball in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Veronica Dominach)

NEW ORLEANS — Coach Erik Spoelstra referred to Miami’s remaining regular-season schedule as a “24-game sprint.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s an important stretch for the playoff-minded Heat.

And the Heat (30-29) didn’t get off to a fast start, as they returned from the All-Star break to begin this “24-game sprint” with a 124-123 overtime loss to the Pelicans (32-26) at Smoothie King Center on Friday. Miami has now lost three straight and eight of its past nine games.

Playing in close games is nothing new for Miami. The Heat have now been involved in a franchise-record 17 consecutive games decided by single digits and it’s three away from the NBA record of 20 consecutive games decided by single digits set by the Pacers in the 1982-83 season.

“You have to forge ahead, regardless of what emotions you’re feeling, frustrating, all these moments can benefit us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I truly believe they will. We’re so close to getting over this hump. It’s just not happening on our time right now. And I know time is important, but we’re playing better basketball.”

With the Heat ahead 123-122, Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday made a game-winning floating jump shot from 10 feet away with 7.3 seconds remaining. Dwyane Wade and Josh Richardson missed shots on Miami’s final offensive possession to clinch the win for New Orleans.

Despite the loss, the Heat held on to the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. The No. 9 Pistons also lost Friday, keeping Miami 1.5 games ahead of Detroit.

Miami had no answer for New Orleans All-Star big man Anthony Davis, who finished with an incredible stat line of 45 points, 17 rebounds, five steals and five blocks.

Goran Dragic led the Heat with 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

The Heat will now return to Miami for a critical five-game homestand that begins Saturday against the struggling Grizzlies (18-39). Memphis enters on an eight-game losing streak.

Here are our five takeaways …

Goran Dragic is an All-Star: In case you needed a reminder that Goran Dragic is indeed an All-Star, he provided one Friday. The Heat’s point guard finished with 30 points on 12-of-22 shooting, nine rebounds and eight assists. It marked the Heat’s first game following the week-long All-Star break, when Dragic represented Miami in Los Angeles as a member of Team LeBron. Dragic has scored 28 or more points in four of his past seven games.

Not a lot of threes, but a lot of paint points: The Heat struggled to make threes, but they made a lot of shots near the basket. Miami shot 6-of-18 from 3-point range, but managed to finish with 70 paint points. The Heat outscored the Pelicans 70-62 in the paint. This is surprising, considering New Orleans entered averaging the second-most paint points in the league at 50.8 per game. Miami ranked 23rd with 42.3 per game. One of the reasons for the Heat’s success inside was their attacking mentality, taking 76 shots in the paint.

“That’s the thing. There’s so many good things,” Spoelstra said when asked about the Heat’s success inside. “That’s what’s tough about this game. Nothing is guaranteed. That’s where you have to show and develop resolve, is forge ahead, because there are things that we’re improving on. Our attack game is getting better, it’s getting more coherent. We’re working together to get the type of opportunities we want.”

Why can’t the Heat make free throws?: For a Heat team that entered Friday with the league’s seventh-worst offensive rating, free throws are especially valuable. But the Heat consistently find themselves giving up points at the charity stripe. Miami is ranked 24th out of 30 teams in team free-throw percentage this season at 75.6 percent, and that below average trend continued in New Orleans. The Heat finished 17-of-26 from the line. Considering it was a one-point loss, these free-throw struggles were especially painful.

The inconsistent James Johnson: One word that can be used to describe James Johnson’s season is inconsistent. Johnson turned in an up-and-down performance in New Orleans, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting. His best work came in overtime, though, as Johnson bounced back from a 2-of-12 shooting performance in regulation to score six points on 3-of-3 shooting in overtime. His season averages aren’t way off the ones that earned him a $60 million contract last summer, as he entered Friday averaging 10.5 points on 48.6 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Johnson’s numbers last season were 12.8 points on 47.9 percent shooting, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Johnson has just been inconsistent this season, with 13 games of 15 points or more and 12 games of five points or less. Friday’s uneven performance was a microcosm of his up-and-down year.

A look at the standings: Even after Friday’s loss, the Heat held on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Miami is 1.5 games ahead of No. 9 Detroit, but is now 2.5 games behind No. 7 Philadelphia. The Heat are 3.5 games behind the No. 6 Bucks, and four games behind the No. 5 Pacers and No. 4 Wizards. It’s crazy to think that Miami was in the fourth spot and playing the Cavaliers for third place in the conference on Jan. 31.

“It’s unfortunate that in this playoff race that we got to go through these tough moments,” said Wade, who finished with 16 points on a season-high 20 shots. “We got to learn from it and move on quickly and be able to make the adjustments so when we get back in that same position in another game, that we do something a little differently to come out with the win.”

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