MIAMI – The celebration will have to wait at least one more game.
The Miami Heat took care of their business Thursday, disposing of the pesky Bulls, 103-92, at AmericanAirlines Arena, but with Detroit defeating Washington, the Heat were unable to clinch a playoff spot.
With the magic number down to 1, that playoff clincher could come Saturday with a Heat victory over Brooklyn or a Pistons loss at the Knicks. Miami (41-35) has equaled its win total from last season with six games remaining.
Josh Richardson led Miami with 22 points and Goran Dragic added 17. The Heat held the Bulls to .367 shooting, including .231 on threes.
“I think we’ve started communicating a lot better lately,” Richardson said about the defense. “We were having a lot of mess ups earlier, two guys on the same person and not doing the right assignments. We’re just talking ourselves out of bad situations. That’s definitely took our defense to another level.”
The Heat were back at full strength for the start of the game, but then lost Tyler Johnson, who left late in the second quarter after spraining his right ankle and did not return. The Bulls (24-51) were without six players, including three starters – Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. Starting center Robin Lopez was ejected with 8:43 to play.
Chicago has lost seven straight games.
Here are our five takeaways:
Playoff clincher on hold: Detroit’s victory over Washington forces the Heat to wait at least a couple of days before clinching a playoff spot. Miami remains seventh in the East, 5.5 games ahead of the Pistons, but climb to within a half game of No. 6 Washington. The Wizards still have games remaining at Houston and Cleveland and against the Celtics at home. Miami’s only remaining games against winning teams are both at home, against OKC and Toronto.
“We’re trying to win every game, that’s what this organization is about,” said Justise Winslow, who scored 13 points. “We’re not too focused on who our opponent is going to be but we we’re trying to win every game almost like college try to get hot at the right time and go from there.”
Two man show: The Heat appeared to be going through the motions for the first three quarters, unable to shake the undermanned Bulls until the fourth quarter. Miami built an 11-point lead in the second quarter but the Bulls got the deficit down to three early in the third quarter. Miami started pulling away late in the third quarter, led by 10 entering the fourth and opened the final 12 minutes on a 13-4 run to push the lead to 19 points. Dragic and Richardson had 30 of the Heat’s 78 points after three quarters, combining to shoot 11-of-21 from the floor. The rest of the team were a combined 18 of 45.
“I actually liked the way our guys competed,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You play a team that’s just in a different place than you are, those can be dangerous games because you get tempted into thinking there’s going to be a knockout punch early. You have to expect every game in this league to be a 48-minute game where you’re required to compete and play at a high level. Any time you start to think otherwise or try to shortcut that process, you end up getting bit in the rear. ”
Big fella is back: Hassan Whiteside returned Thursday after missing nine games because of a strained left hip flexor. He immediately was inserted into the starting lineup and was active early with four points, five rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot in the first six minutes. Whiteside finished with eight points, seven rebounds, two blocks and four assists, which equals his career high. He played 19:28. Whiteside has missed 28 games total this season. Miami is 14-14 in those games.
“His conditioning was a little bit better than I anticipated,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s been doing a lot of work behind the scenes and I thought he was able to play with the pace that we’re playing at. He had four assists. … So we were able to play some offense through him. He made some nice easy plays on handoffs. It’s just good to have him back out there. He clearly gives us something different.”
Home dominance: The Heat have become a very good team at home. Miami now has won 11 of 12 at AmericanAirlines Arena, including a season-high eight in a row. Those wins have come by an average of 14.4 points. The Heat are 24-14 at home after starting the season 3-5. Miami was 23-18 at home last season.
“Trying to give our fans a show definitely has helped,” said Justise Winslow, who scored 13 points. “Getting D-Wade back, he brought a lot of energy to the arena. I think especially us young guys, we’re feeding off that energy that the crowd is bringing.”
Injury bug hits again: For the second time this season on a night the Heat started with their full complement of players (minus Dion Waiters) one was injured during the game. Johnson landed awkwardly on his right ankle during the second quarter and although he remained in the game for several minutes he returned to the locker room before halftime and was ruled out for the second half with a sprained ankle. Johnson has missed 14 games this season because of various injuries, including a left ankle injury he suffered against the Bulls in January that kept him out six games. Rodney McGruder took Johnson’s spot in the starting lineup for the second half. Spoelstra said Johnson wanted to play the second half but the Heat were not going to risk it and had him doing treatment during that time.
“He was able to walk out of here without a limp,” Spoelstra said.