Five takeaways: Defense and depth carry Heat to important win over 76ers

Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons, center, drives as Miami Heat’s James Johnson, left and Goran Dragic (7) defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, March 8, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

MIAMI — The Heat needed vintage Dwyane Wade to beat the 76ers last week. On Thursday, the Heat needed a vintage defensive performance.

Miami (35-31) used the type of defense that has won it so many games over the years to earn an important 108-99 victory over Philadelphia (35-29) at AmericanAirlines Arena. The win tied the season series between the two teams 2-2 and pulled the seventh-place Heat within one game of the sixth-place 76ers in the Eastern Conference standings.

Aside from Philadelphia’s 24 fast-break points, Miami’s defense was dominant. The Heat limited the 76ers to 39.5 percent shooting despite the easy transition baskets and forced them into 18 turnovers.

“Really, the big-time road map for us is when we commit to defend and do all the little things,” coach Erik Spoelstra said, with the Heat 21-6 this season when holding opponents to under 100 points. “Even with all the transition buckets we gave up, to hold them under 100 and to hold them under 40 percent. We’re pretty good when we do that. It’s not an easy road. Our guys understand that, but it is a successful road map that’s there for us.”

And Miami turned its defense up in the fourth quarter, holding Philadelphia to 7-of-22 (31.8 percent) shooting over the final 12 minutes to turn a one-point deficit entering the fourth into a nine-point victory.

The Heat’s offense wasn’t bad either. Miami made 13 of its 18 shots in the fourth, including 5-of-6 on 3-pointers.

Heat center Hassan Whiteside won his individual matchup with 76ers center Joel Embiid, too. Whiteside finished with 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting and eight rebounds, while Embiid struggled with 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting.

“I think a large part of that was Hassan taking initiative and being very assertive on both ends of the court,” Spoelstra said. “It felt like he had more blocks than he did, he was a presence in the paint. It felt like he had more rebounds than he did. But his assertiveness throughout the course of the game, it was undeniable and the ball finds energy, the ball finds aggressiveness, the ball finds assertiveness. All of that, and that happened tonight.”

The Heat inserted Tyler Johnson back into the starting lineup Thursday alongside Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Whiteside.

Here are our five takeaways …

Fourth quarter dominance: The Heat entered the fourth quarter trailing 74-73, and they ended it with a nine-point win. Miami used dominant defense to outscore Philadelphia 35-25 in the period. The Heat shot 72.2 percent while limiting the 76ers to 31.8 percent shooting in the fourth, and it was the bench that got a lot of the work done for Miami. The Heat’s reserves combined to score 25 of the team’s 35 points in the quarter, with Wayne Ellington scoring nine and Dwyane Wade scoring eight. Justise Winslow played the entire period, recording six points, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocks over the final 12 minutes. The fourth quarter formula will be different for the Heat from game to game, and it was the bench that stepped up late on Thursday.

The return of Wayne Ellington: After missing four consecutive games with a left quad contusion, Heat sharpshooter Wayne Ellington made his return Thursday against the 76ers. And Ellington made his presence felt right away, making three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to finish with nine points, three rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes. But the best news for Miami is that he’s healthy and he’s playing. It’s clear that the Heat are a better team with Ellington on the court, as he owns the second-best plus-minus on the team at plus-100 this season.

“He changes your menu offensively,” Spoelstra said. “You just have so many more dimensions with Wayne coming off screens, Wayne setting screens, Wayne helping your better players. It’s that gravity pull that superior shooters have and that’s the respect that he has in the opponent’s scouting report.

“It’s interesting. I came in yesterday on our off day and I came in here and there’s [assistant coach Octavio De La Grana] working with Wayne for a good hour, full lather sweat, empty gym, no music and I see Wayne doing every single one of those movements you see him hit threes on tonight. He did that yesterday. Probably each one of those shots, 30 reps each. So it’s not be accident. He puts in the time.”

McGruder, Babbitt odd men out?: They were on Thursday. With the return of Wayne Ellington, the Heat have 14 healthy players and 12 who can make a case to be in the rotation — Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Ellington, Bam Adebayo, James Johnson, Luke Babbitt, Dwyane Wade, Rodney McGruder and Kelly Olynyk. It leaves Spoelstra with some tough decisions. Miami used 10 players against Philadelphia, with Babbitt and McGruder as the odd men out. But this doesn’t necessarily mean those two will be out of the rotation moving forward. Spoelstra has made it clear that matchups will dictate the bottom end of the Heat’s rotation on a game-to-game basis. Just take a look at Bam Adebayo’s past few games. The rookie played a total of nine minutes over the two games preceding Thursday’s contest, and logged 14 minutes against the 76ers.

“I got lost in the sauce a couple of times,” Spoelstra said of figuring out the Heat’s rotation against the 76ers. “I forgot about a couple of guys. You’re used to having a different rotation and all of a sudden we have everybody available. Now I’m having to make the good decisions. Our guys were able to compete and play hard, empty the tank. Our depth, I think, did play a part tonight.”

The end of Vice: Want to see the Heat play more games in their Miami Vice-themed uniform? You will have to wait. The Heat played their 15th and final game in the colorful ensemble on Thursday. Miami posted an 8-7 record in the uniforms, which created a social media stir when they were revealed in January. There’s been no decision made whether the Vice look will be back next season. But based on the uniform’s popularity, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them again in a few months.

Heat stay in seventh, but gain ground in standings: Even after the win, the Heat remained in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. But the Heat did increase their lead over the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks to one-half game. And Miami also pulled to within one game of No. 6 Philadelphia, and 2.5 games of No. 5 Indiana and No. 4 Washington. With 16 games remaining on the Heat’s regular-season schedule, every result is important. But Thursday’s victory over the 76ers was especially critical, considering they’re one of the teams battling with the Heat for playoff positioning. Want more good news? It looks like the Heat will be one of the East’s eight teams to make the postseason, barring a collapse, as they now own a 5.5 game lead over the ninth-place Pistons.

“It was important this time of the year, especially at home to take care of business,” Wade said. “We’re coming off a loss in Washington but to come back here, three in four nights, to pull this out versus a team that’s played very well and plays us very tough. It was a playoff atmosphere from the beginning to the end.”

[Erik Spoelstra says missed calls in Washington could have changed ‘momentum and complexion’ of game]

[With Wayne Ellington expected to return tonight vs. Sixers; read what Erik Spoelstra says about having full roster]

[Dwyane Wade talks about his visit to Douglas High School, says he’s ‘excited’ about continuing to get behind students]

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