CLEVELAND – The Heat have defeated Houston, Atlanta, Golden State and Cleveland at home and the Rockets and Hawks on the road while winning 19-of-23 games. But none were as impressive as Monday’s 106-98 win at Cleveland.
In fact, this could be one of Miami’s most impressive victories in the post-LeBron James era.
Not only did the Cavs (42-20) have a rested James and Kyrie Irving back in the lineup, but the Heat (30-34) were without two important players, Tyler and James Johnson, the spark plugs off the bench and arguably two of their top four players this season, and Luke Babbitt, who played just nine minutes. Tyler missed the game with a sore shoulder and James was recovering from a cut on his elbow. Babbitt left early with back spasms.
So Miami turned to an eight-man rotation with Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington and rookie Okaro White playing heavy minutes and Willie Reed chipping in with 12 minutes.
But the real damaged was done by three players, all picking up the other.
Dion Waiters carried Miami to a 10-point first half lead with his best half of the season, scoring 24 of his team-high 29 points while making all but two of his shots. Waiters, who spent extra time Monday with shooting coach Rob Fodor working on his jumper (he was 4-of-21 in his previous two games), made all seven of his shots from midrange and 3 in the first half.
“I just was locked in,” Waiters said. “I knew I had to come out and be aggressive because our Johnson brothers weren’t (playing) and I knew I had to be overly aggressive tonight. When I’m playing my game and playing in the flow of things and just taking what they were giving me. … ”
But Waiters, predictably, cooled and in stepped Ellington, who in a span of 2:13 late in the third quarter drilled three 3-pointers to help push a lead that had been reduced to three points just before he entered to 14. He finished with 18 points. Miami then build that cushion to 18 by the end of the quarter.
“It’s that methodical, incremental every single day improvement,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That process started in August. He’s getting in better shape, he’s getting in better rhythm.”
Spoelstra then threw the ultimate compliment Ellington’s way.
“His shooting routine and program is Ray Allen-ish,” he said. “And all of that is behind the scenes as the first one in the building, last one to leave. Strokes like that don’t happen by accident and you don’t have shooting games like that every single game but you work on it every single day no matter what happens.”
Then it was time for the team’s most reliable player this season to step up. Goran Dragic, who was relatively quiet for three quarters with 11 points, went on a tear. He scored 10 points in less than three minutes with a layup, midrange jumper and two 3-pointers to help Miami keep the lead around 20 points. Dragic finished with 21.
“If everybody’s involved it’s really tough to defend,” Dragic said.
The Cavs made their expected run but the man who had a loud first half and was quiet in the second half, banked home the biggest shot of the night. Waiters’ 32-foot 3-pointer with 12.2 seconds to play was the dagger.
“They made a mad rush in coming back, made shots … you just have to find a way in competition to make some plays down the stretch and fortunately we were able to,” Spoelstra said.
For Waiters, the feeling was extra special, considering he was loudly booed early in the game (Waiters played 2.5 years in Cleveland before James essentially had him traded) and then had the ultimate silencer.
“It’s always tempting against your former team, you want to play well,” Dragic said. “He made a couple of huge shots.”