MIAMI — It only counts as one win, but the Miami Heat needed it before embarking on a three-game West Coast trip.
The Heat (36-31) put together one of their best all-around performances of the season to dominate the Washington Wizards 129-102 on Saturday at AmericanAirlines Arena. The victory tied the season series between the two teams 2-2, and pulled the seventh-place Heat within one-half game of the No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers and two games of the No. 5 Wizards (38-29).
“Our energy was great, both ends of the court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Right from the beginning, it looked like we were the more aggressive, faster, quicker team. … But again, our depth and multiple guys being able to contribute, that’s the strength of our team. The quicker and the better we’re able to embrace that, that it can be different guys on different nights or it could be a lot of guys in the same night, but not necessarily a 35 or 40-point game [from one individual player]. And that’s what you saw tonight.”
Even with starting center Hassan Whiteside unavailable due to left hip pain stemming from an injury he suffered in Saturday morning’s shootaround session, Miami’s offense was as sharp as its been this season. The Heat scored a season-high 129 points on 59.1 percent shooting.
Miami’s depth was on display, as eight players finished with double-digit points. James Johnson scored a team-high 20 on 8-of-9 shooting and Wayne Ellington added 17 with the help of 4-of-9 shooting on 3-pointers.
Washington never led, as Miami went ahead by as many as 38 points. Jodie Meeks scored a game-high 23 points for the Wizards.
But the night didn’t end without some bad news for the Heat.
Guard Dwyane Wade exited the contest in the fourth quarter with a mild left hamstring strain and did not return. Wade said it’s unlikely he’ll be able to play in the Heat’s next game Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I won’t be in the lineup against Portland, I can probably guarantee that,” Wade said. “I have time to get treatment and try to take it day to day and see when I get back. Hopefully I’m not out too long. I don’t know how long. I have no timetable right now. All you can do is do your treatment and do your strengthening and whenever you feel like it’s ready to go just get on the floor.”
As for Whiteside, he’s unsure if he’ll be ready to play Monday.
“I don’t know. With strains it’s pretty tricky,” Whiteside said. “They can last a couple of days, they can go away. I definitely don’t want to go out there and make it worse and then it’s something that’s lingering for month.”
Saturday marked the end of an eight-game stretch for the Heat that included seven at home, and they took advantage with a 6-2 record. While both Wade and Whiteside could miss Monday’s game against the Trail Blazers, they will travel with the team for its three-game trip.
Here are our five takeaways …
Heat offense improving: Since Dwyane Wade was traded to the Heat, their offense has picked up. Miami entered Saturday with league’s 12th-best offensive rating over the past 10 games, scoring 109.8 points per 100 possessions. Considering the Heat ranked ranked 24th in this area with 103.1 points per 100 possessions over the first 55 games of the season before Wade arrived, this is a big improvement. The upward trend continued against Washington, with Miami scoring a season-high 129 points on 59.1 percent shooting. And there’s isn’t just one player who’s led the charge. The Heat continued to use a balanced attack, with eight players scoring double-digits and the bench combining for 67 points.
There’s the aggressive James Johnson: It’s been a while since the aggressive James Johnson has made an appearance. But he showed up Saturday, finishing with 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting and five assists. Johnson scored 14 of his points in the paint, his most since he totaled 16 in a win over the Hornets on Jan. 20. This is the player the Heat need more often, as he entered averaging 5.3 paint points this season compared to 8.1 over his final 15 games of last season (arguably the best stretch of his NBA career). This is the player Miami signed to a four-year, $60 million contract last summer.
“I thought he was aggressive, No. 1, clearly,” Spoelstra said of Johnson. “To make them have to guard him, but then he read the game really well after that facilitating. It just shows you how versatile he is as a ball handler, facilitator, creator, screener and he can wrap all of that into one position that’s extremely unique. There’s not a lot of guys his size that have all of those qualities.”
Going hard in the paint … without Whiteside: When starting center Hassan Whiteside was ruled out for Saturday’s game, it was hard to imagine the Heat were about to score a season-high 76 points in the paint. After all, Whiteside is averaging a team-high 10.3 paint points per game this season. But even without him, Miami managed to outscore Washington 76-42 in this department. It helped that the Heat made 38 of its 52 shots in the paint.
Making it look easy: For a Heat team that’s played in an NBA-high 45 clutch games this season, there haven’t been many easy wins. Miami earned its sixth win by more than 12 points Saturday. To put this into perspective, the 24-42 Knicks have 10 of these wins and the 20-46 Magic have nine. But lately, blowouts have become more of the norm for the Heat. Miami has recorded three wins by more than 20 points in just the past two weeks. You can thank an improved Heat offense that’s scoring more points for this recent development.
“It’s about time,” Johnson said of earning the convincing win. “We’ve been trending in such a right direction for so long, losing so many clutch games. All that is just preparing us for nights like this.”
A look at the East playoff race: The Heat are still in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, with 15 regular-season games remaining. But the win did increase Miami’s lead over the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks to one-half game. The Heat also inched closer to the teams ahead of them, moving within one-half game of the No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers, two games of the No. 5 Washington Wizards, 2.5 games of the No. 4 Indiana Pacers and three games of the No. 3 Cleveland Cavaliers. With wins over Philadelphia and Washington this week, Miami improved its chances of moving up the standings. The Heat are actually closer to third place — three games behind the Cavaliers — than they are to ninth place — 5.5 games ahead of the Pistons. Barring a collapse, Miami will be one of the East’s eight teams to make the playoffs.