Staunch defense propels Heat in ‘must-win’ game against Nets

MIAMI — During the Big 3 era, an early January home game for the Miami Heat against a team like the Brooklyn Nets may not have carried too much significance.

But with the Heat clinging to the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Confernece in the first half of the season and a weak 6-12 home record entering Sunday’s game, they needed a victory to build some confidence as they begin a five-game West Coast trip later this week.

"We needed it," said Dwyane Wade, who had 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds. "It was good. I think the difference between this game and the ones we have lost is that, when they made their run, we found a way to get a bucket and stop their run and get a good defensive possession. That was one of the biggest differences."

Withstanding a late run from the opposition and answering back with their own baskets was huge for the Heat, who snapped a four-game losing streak by holding on for an 88-84 win.

Their defense overall was much stronger then it was during their disappointing homestand in which they only won twice in seven games, and they improved their record to 14-5 for the season when they hold the opposition to under 100 points.

Hassan Whiteside was the main reason for their defensive success against Brooklyn, with his best performance as a member of the Heat and arguably as a pro. His 11 points off the bench on 5-of-7 shooting — the third-highest scorer behind Wade and Chris Bosh — was certainly welcome, but it was his activity around the rim that produced a career-high five blocks and altered countless others that helped most of all. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, which also marked a season-high to help the Heat — currently ranked last in the NBA in that category — outrebound the Nets.

"He’s unbelievable," Bosh said. "The talent speaks for itself. He’s making sure he’s doing what he needs to do to help this team. I think he can really exceed expectations."

Miami is five games under .500, but victories like Sunday’s can help embolden the team, especially the younger players such as Whiteside. They never trailed Sunday against a surging Brooklyn team that had reached 16-16 with six wins in its past seven games after a three-game losing streak in mid-December had left them five games under .500.

Sunday’s victory marked the Heat’s third in as many games between the two teams, and it was their first with both Bosh and Wade playing.

"They have a tough team for us," said Nets guard Joe Johnson, who led his team with 19 points. "When you are playing (them), you have to eliminate one of these guys, as far as Wade and Bosh. I thought both of them did a good job tonight, especially Wade down the stretch making big plays and knocking down free throws."

Perhaps most encouraging was the Heat’s response after their blowout loss on the road the night before against the Houston Rockets. From the start, the team shook off the effects of flying in late and losing hours because of the time zone change to score 30 points in the first quarter and set the tone for a positive night.

"It was good to see our guys respond after last night and not let that linger over to tonight," head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It was an old-school Miami Heat game. More defensive-minded and grinding out offensive possessions, and it was good to see a good defensive effort like this. Guys were really working hard throughout the course of the game."

Heat vs. Nets

Spoelstra added later that "you don’t take winning for granted when we’re having a season like this."

One feel-good win doesn’t address the myriad issues the Heat still have. The Nets bench outscored the Heat bench 43-21 and their point guard play with Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole continues to be substandard. With upcoming games against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on their upcoming road trip, the Heat still have plenty of work to do to improve in several keys areas.

But they’ll take any win however way they can get it, even if it did get close to another late-game meltdown before Bosh and Wade iced the game at the free-throw line.

"It felt good," Bosh said of getting the victory. "We have to kind of take that mentality of ‘by whatever means necessary’. I’m glad with the way everybody responded. When we needed a stop, we got one. It was all about effort on the defensive end.

"Today was just a must win. It didn’t matter who we played."

You can follow Surya Fernandez on Twitter @SuryaHeatNBA or email him at SuryaFoxSports@gmail.com.