Five takeaways from Heat-Pistons: Miami Heat lose third straight, fall to seventh place in East

DETROIT — The good news is the Heat are heading home.

The Heat (29-24) closed out a challenging 14-game stretch that included 11 on the road with a 111-107 loss to the Pistons (25-26) on Saturday at at Little Caesars Arena. It marked the Heat’s third consecutive loss and the end of a 1-3 four-game trip.

Miami posted a solid 7-7 record during this difficult stretch spent mostly on the road. After weeks of holding on to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, Saturday’s loss dropped them to No. 7 in the standings.

“Bittersweet,” Heat forward James Johnson said when asked about heading back home. “We really wanted to go back home at least half of these games won on the road and we didn’t accomplish that. We just got to step it up, man.”

Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) is defended by Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) while trying to go to the basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The Heat kept it close for most of the game and the score was even tied at 101 with 2:56 to play. But the Pistons closed the fourth quarter out on a 10-6 run to seal the victory.

Center Andre Drummond led the Pistons with 23 points, 20 rebounds and four blocks. Detroit point guard Ish Smith finished with 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting.

Five Heat players scored double-digit points, with point guard Goran Dragic scoring a season-high 33 points on 13-of-23 shooting. Dragic saved his best work for the second half, when he scored 24 points.

Miami played without starting center Hassan Whiteside, who missed the game with an illness. The Heat struggled to rebound the ball without Whiteside, as Detroit outrebounded Miami 49-33.

Now that this string of road games is complete, the Heat return to Miami to play 10 of their next 14 games at home.

“We didn’t finish the road trip the way we wanted to,” Dragic said. “Especially if we won tonight, 2-2 is a good result. Tomorrow we have a day off. We’ll try to spend some time with family and try to get back to work. It’s going to be easier. At least we’ll see our family, sleep in our bed and try to re-energize yourself and come back to work.”

Here are our five takeaways …

Drummond, Griffin frontcourt is already dominating: The Heat really missed Whiteside on Saturday. Going up against the new-look Pistons, Miami had trouble containing the frontcourt tandem of Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin. Drummond and Griffin combined for 39 points, 29 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks. Without Whiteside, who is Miami’s best rebounder and interior defender, the Pistons won the rebounding battle 49-33 and outscored the Heat 60-50 in the paint. The Pistons are 2-0 with Griffin on the court since acquiring the five-time All-Star from the Clippers in a trade on Monday.

“You have two of the best rebounders, especially in Drummond and you add Griffin in there and they just have a lot of strength and vertical leap,” Heat center Kelly Olynyk said.

Maybe James Johnson should come off the bench?: James Johnson has been searching for his place in the Heat’s offense for most of the season. He’s looked hesitant at times, looking more to pass than shoot. Johnson said the hardest adjustment has been playing off the ball more often than last season. Well on Saturday, Johnson looked like the player who the Heat signed to a four-year, $60 million contract. And it came in Johnson’s first game off the bench after a string of 11 consecutive starts. He finished with 18 points, five rebounds and seven assists, and was more aggressive on offense than he’s been in a long time. Johnson even threw down a vicious dunk over Drummond in the fourth quarter. Playing as a reserve, Johnson was able to play more of the point-forward role and often initiated offense. Even when Whiteside does return from his illness, Johnson could continue to play as a reserve after this performance.

“Everybody will notice if he scores points. It’s not about that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Johnson. “It’s about leadership, his captaincy, No. 1. No. 2, then those defensive inspiring plays. He was guarding one through four, one through five when he was on Drummond and Griffin virtually all the minutes he was out there. Doing it without fouling, playing all the pick-and-rolls. It’s inspiring for our guys. They really follow his lead when he does that. And then obviously on the other end, he just brings great versatility. It’s tough to scout for a player like that. So is he in his comfort zone off the bench? I don’t know, but we’re going to need more of that going down the stretch.”

This is the Dragic the Heat need: It had been a quiet stretch for the Heat’s All-Star point guard. Goran Dragic entered Saturday averaging 11.5 points on 37.3 shooting from the field and 15.4 percent shooting from 3-point range over his past four games. But Dragic ended those shooting struggles in Detroit, finishing with a season-high 33 points on 13-of-23 shooting. He dominated the third quarter, with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the period. Dragic also dished out six assists while committing no turnovers. It resulted in a loss, but this is the kind of aggressiveness Miami needs from Dragic moving forward.

“I don’t think you need to encourage Dragon to be more aggressive,” Johnson said when asked if the Heat have encouraged Dragic to be more aggressive on offense. “Like I said, that’s our All-Star. We stand behind him and whatever offensive decisions he makes, we live with.”

Another game, another Heat starting lineup: With Whiteside out due to an illness, the Heat used their 16th different starting lineup of the season in Detroit. Spoelstra turned to a five-man combination of Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo to start the game. The group had never played together in a game before Saturday. For the most part, the results were positive. The Heat outscored the Pistons by one point in 13 minutes with this lineup on the court. But Whiteside is expected back soon, so this starting five is temporary.

Heat fall again in standings: A night after dropping from No. 4 to No. 5 in the Eastern Conference, Miami fell in the standings again Saturday. The loss dropped the Heat to seventh place, with the Pacers taking the fifth spot and the Bucks taking the sixth spot. Miami is one-half game behind fifth-place Indiana and percentage points behind sixth-place Milwaukee. The Heat are 1.5 games behind fourth-place Washington. This is probably obvious at this point, but it looks like it’s going to be a tight race until the end.

“At this point, whatever it takes,” Spoelstra said. “Going down the stretch, this whole playoff race, is going to be wild. It’s going to be crazy, a lot of fun. Look at the Eastern Conference right now. You have a couple teams that have separated themselves and everybody else is just bunched up. That’s what you want as competitors. You want to be playing for something. It should be a wild couple of months.”

[Udonis Haslem tries to return to ‘work mode’ after emotional week]

[Hassan Whiteside will miss Saturday’s game vs. Pistons with illness]

[What did Hassan Whiteside think about the Blake Griffin trade? ‘I’m glad he’s with a team that wants him’]

[Opponents making adjustments to stop Heat’s Wayne Ellington. What will Ellington’s adjustment be in response?]

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