MIAMI — The Heat needed a bounce-back performance Saturday, and they got one.
Miami (33-30) picked itself up from Thursday’s blowout loss to the Lakers with an important 105-96 victory over the Pistons (29-34) at AmericanAirlines Arena. With the win, the Heat strengthened their hold on the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot and moved to four games ahead of No. 9 Detroit.
“The win was the biggest win we can get right now,” said Heat forward James Johnson, who finished with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. “Playoff atmosphere, we didn’t want to leave no doubt. This was a big game for us and we all knew that. They knew that. We stepped up. We prevailed.”
Miami is now 3-1 on its critical five-game homestand, with Monday’s game against the Suns marking the end of this stretch. Meanwhile, the Pistons have lost eight of their past 10 games.
Although the Heat’s 18-point lead was trimmed to four entering the fourth quarter, they pulled away in the final period. Miami outscored Detroit 31-26 in the fourth despite missing eight of 17 free throws in the quarter.
Josh Richardson and Kelly Olynyk each scored a team-high 17 points for the Heat. Center Hassan Whiteside made up for an inefficient eight-point performance on 2-of-10 shooting with 19 rebounds.
Even in a loss, the Pistons frontcourt of Andre Drummond (22 points, 18 rebounds) and Blake Griffin (31 points, four rebounds, six assists) was dominant. The duo combined for 53 points, 22 rebounds and eight assists.
The Heat played without Tyler Johnson (left quad contusion), Wayne Ellington (left quad contusion) and Bam Adebayo (personal reasons).
Here are our five takeaways …
The bounce back: The Heat’s loss to the Lakers on Thursday was ugly. But things change quickly in the NBA, and Saturday’s win over the Pistons is proof of that. Just two nights after the Lakers scored 131 points on 59.5 percent shooting on the Heat — the most Miami has allowed this season and the most it has allowed in regulation in a regular-season game since March 7, 2008 — things looked totally different against the Pistons. Miami limited Detroit to 96 points on 41.6 percent shooting. It helped that the Pistons were on the second night of a back-to-back set and were playing their fifth game in seven days.
“We talked about holding them under 100, I think we accomplished that, right?,” said Dwyane Wade, who finished with 11 points and six rebounds. “That’s what we preach. We had a great second quarter defensively, held them to 18 points. That’s what coach was talking about. I’m proud of our team for making the adjustment and that’s what it’s about, that’s how in the playoffs that you be successful. After a team hits you in the mouth, you come back the next game you have to be able to make adjustments.”
No closer, no problem: Without a true go-to player on the Heat’s roster who can assume the role of closer on a nightly basis, different players have taken turns this season. On Saturday, it was a collective approach that got the job done for Miami. With Miami’s 18-point lead cut to four entering the fourth quarter, multiple players stepped up for the Heat to outscore the Pistons 31-26 in the final period. Seven players scored for Miami in the fourth, led by six points each from Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. Kelly Olynyk contributed five points and Hassan Whiteside recorded three points and seven rebounds in the quarter.
“A lot of guys contributed to this game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I think the box score is indicative of that. You just saw pockets and stretches of different guys contributing and the main thing was the main thing — whatever it took to get the win.”
This is the Kelly Olynyk the Heat love: Just two nights after an ugly scoreless outing in Thursday’s loss to the Lakers, Kelly Olynyk turned in an encouraging bounce-back performance against the Pistons. Olynyk posted a stat line of 17 points, five rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes on Saturday. It’s the 7-footer’s best game since he returned from a strained left shoulder on Feb. 27. And it was a timely performance, as Whiteside battled foul trouble all game and Adebayo was unavailable due to personal reasons. Olynyk’s entire repertoire was on display against Detroit. He knocked down three 3-pointers, made some nice passes, and now owns a team-best plus-minus of plus-112 this season.
“With every game, you’re going to get better and better,” Olynyk said of finding his rhythm in three games since returning from injury. “You’re just kind of feeling your way back into it. Obviously after being out for a few weeks, you’re not going to come back and just instantly turn the switch back on. Just trying to get back into it as much as you can and keep developing, and obviously now that second unit is different with Dwyane [Wade]. Just trying to kind of find our rhythm with him and everything that he does. But I think it’s good. We’re getting into it and it’s trending up.”
Welcome back, Luke Babbitt: Saturday didn’t mark Luke Babbitt’s first game with the Heat this season (it actually was his eighth game back in Miami). But it was the best game in his second stint with the Heat after he was re-acquired by Miami in trade on Feb. 8. Babbitt received his first start since returning to the Heat on Saturday, finishing with nine points on 3-of-8 shooting from 3-point range. He entered the contest with just six points scored in 26 minutes played in his first seven games back, and only played in four of them. Could Babbitt become a regular in the Heat’s starting lineup in one of the forward spots? With James Johnson, Winslow and Olynyk also on the list of options to start at forward, Babbitt is more likely to play in a bench role moving forward. But it’s not a crazy question, considering Babbitt did start 55 games for Miami last season.
“He works so diligently on his shooting and staying in shape,” Spoelstra said of Babbitt. “He’s probably on the treadmill, so that whenever his number is called, he’s not going to misstep that opportunity. He’s ready for it and he played well tonight. Without him, I don’t know, with that many guys out, if we would have felt a sense of familiarity, even though we had to change the starting lineup again.”
Heat in good position to make playoffs: The Heat continue to distance themselves from the teams behind them in the Eastern Conference standings. No. 8 Miami is now four games ahead of No. 9 Detroit with 19 games remaining on the Heat’s regular-season schedule. Miami is also just one-half game behind No. 7 Milwaukee, two games behind No. 6 Philadelphia, 2.5 games behind No. 5 Indiana and three games behind No. 4 Washington. The Heat are in a good position to make the playoffs, with a four-game cushion between them and the ninth-place Pistons. And the Heat are within striking distance of the teams ahead of them.