Five takeaways from Heat-Rockets: Shorthanded Heat fight hard in final game of long road trip, but can’t finish job

HOUSTON — Not all losses are bad losses.

The shorthanded Heat (27-20) proved that Monday in a 99-90 loss to the high-powered Rockets (33-12) at Toyota Center. Despite being without guards Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson, Miami kept it close until the end against the team with the league’s second-best record on the final night of a five-game trip.

But the Heat just couldn’t close it out. With the game tied at 88, Houston finished the game on a 11-2 run to to earn the victory.

“There’s nothing to regret about this game,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ll learn from it. We’ll learn how to handle those kind of situations, execute better to be able to finish games against a defense that steps up the pressure.”

Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson (0) has the ball knocked away between Houston Rockets guards Eric Gordon (10) and James Harden (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

It’s pretty incredible Miami even kept it close against Houston’s potent offense after scoring just 17 points in the second quarter and 18 points in the third quarter. But the Heat’s defense kept them in the game, holding the Rockets to 41 percent shooting over the first three quarters.

The All-Star Rockets backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul combined to score 44 points on 16-of-39 shooting.

Hassan Whiteside led the Heat with 22 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and three steals. Wayne Ellington contributed 13 points, but shot an inefficient 3-of-11 from 3-point range.

Despite the loss, the Heat held on to the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference with the Wizards also losing Monday. Miami is one game ahead of No. 5 Washington.

Here are our five takeaways …

Encouraging loss: The term “encouraging loss” might be considered an oxymoron. But that’s what the Heat experienced in Houston against the team with the league’s second-best record. Playing without injured guards Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson on the final night of a long five-game trip, the Heat kept the score close against the Rockets, which feature an All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and James Harden. Miami led by as much as 14 in a game that included 15 lead changes and 10 ties, but it just couldn’t sustain that success down the stretch. But this loss isn’t discouraging, it’s actually one that you can take a lot of positives from.

Where did Whiteside go?: Heat center Hassan Whiteside made his presence felt from the start with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals in the first quarter. Those 14 points tied his season-high for a quarter this season, matching the 14 he scored in the fourth quarter of the season opener against the Magic on Oct. 18. But Whiteside couldn’t sustain that success, as he scored just eight points on 4-of-8 shooting the rest of the way. Because of his strong start, he still finished with a strong stat line of 22 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and three steals, but also committed seven turnovers.

“That’s always the challenge,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside’s uneven performance. “Hassan will continue to get better at it. That’s what this league is now. You go smaller, spread you out. On the other end, if you’re trying to punish teams in the paint, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of quick hands, dealing with double-teams, a lot of intricacies he’ll have to continue to get better at and he will. … But he did a lot of good things during the course of the game, particularly defensively, which allowed us to really defend their pick-and-roll game probably as well as you can on their homecourt.”

How do you slow down the Rockets’ potent offense? Ask the Heat: It seems like Miami has the formula. After the Heat limited the Rockets to 40.7 percent shooting in their two meetings last season, they had success against Houston’s offense again Monday. Miami held the Rockets to 99 points on 44.4 percent shooting. It’s just the fourth time Houston has been held to under 100 points in a game this season. The Rockets entered Monday ranked second in the league in scoring offense at 114.7 points per game. The Heat’s defense set the tone from the start, holding the Rockets to their lowest-scoring first half of the season at 46 points.

“It was in our wheelhouse,” Ellington said. “We held them under 100. That was the game plan. That’s what we needed to do. We just came out a little short.”

Playing without Goran and Tyler: For the second consecutive game, the Heat were forced to play without primary ball handlers Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson. And for the second consecutive game, Miami’s offense survived. Wayne Ellington took Dragic’s spot in the starting lineup, and starting forwards Josh Richardson and James Johnson assumed most of the point guard duties. Miami’s offense didn’t really miss a beat, scoring 90 points on an efficient 47.6 percent shooting. Since the start of last season, the Heat are 4-10 in games Dragic has been out. Dragic and Johnson are expected back soon, though. Both players were “able to do a little bit on the court” during Monday’s shootaround.

Let’s go home: Finally, the Heat will return home. Monday’s loss to the Rockets marked the end of a five-game trip that spanned eight days. And although the Heat finished the trip with a 2-3 record that included disappointing losses to the Bulls and Nets, it was a productive one. Miami earned quality wins over the Bucks and, considering the circumstances, the Hornets. Now that the Heat survived this trip, they will return to Miami for a quick two-game homestand that begins Thursday against the struggling Sacramento Kings and ends Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets (a team the Heat has already beaten three times this season). Two very winnable games for Miami.

“It feels like we’ve been on the road all season,” Ellington said. “We had a little bit of time at home, but it’s been tough. But at the same time, these road games and being on the road, it builds character.”

[‘Gifted’ and ‘unbelievable’ are two words that can be used to describe Derrick Jones Jr.’s dunking ability]

[Heat guard Dion Waiters will undergo ankle surgery Monday]

[Rebuilding effort continues in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Justise Winslow wants to be a part of it]

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