Five takeaways from the Heat’s 103-87 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Monday night at Pepsi Center:
▪ One bad quarter keeps dooming the Heat on this road trip.
In Sacramento, a 17-point lead was squandered with the Kings outscoring the Heat 27-13 in the fourth. In Golden State, it was a 36-23 Warriors third quarter run, erasing a Heat halftime lead, long after Miami built a 19 point first quarter cushion.
And on Monday in Denver, it was a Nuggets third-quarter run that turned a five-point lead into 18.
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“We got disorganized offensively and that led to some run-outs,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Five of eight possession turned into transition threes or breaks out of our inefficient offense. That was probably the biggest thing. Every time we made a little bit of a run, they created more separation.”
Justise Winslow said turnovers have been the common theme. Miami committed 19 on Monday, leading to 21 Nuggets points.
“This game and Sacramento, turnovers were a big part of that,” Winslow said. “That’s what makes teams great, the consistency. But we’ve been playing really well on this road trip. It doesn’t feel like 1-3.
“That’s the weird part about it, because we’ve been playing some good basketball. We just had four minute stretches where things got out of our hands. We’re playing good basketball; we have to figure out a way to get these wins.”
In Miami’s defense, this always figured to be one of the Heat’s toughest assignments of the season — the second game of a back-to-back set, against a very good team, at a high altitude, a night after taking Golden State to the buzzer.
“Tough back to back,” said Dwyane Wade, who scored eight points. “We played a great first half. Then guys got fatigued. They went on a run and pulled away.”
▪ The Heat (25-30) keeps losing ground in the playoff race.
Miami’s loss, coupled with Detroit’s win against Washington, put the Pistons a full game ahead of the Heat for the 8th and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Pistons and Heat have two games remaining against each other, both in Miami.
Orlando is even with Miami in the win column and one game behind the Heat for 9th.
The good news, if you’re rooting for a Heat playoff berth and not for a lottery appearance: No. 7 Charlotte lost Monday and is only 1.5 games ahead of the Heat. And No. 6 Brooklyn lost, leaving the Nets 2.5 games ahead of the Heat.
“There’s a reality of a bottom line, but I’m seeing improvement with our team,” Spoelstra said.
▪ All Star Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee both outplayed Hassan Whiteside, ending a stretch of excellent work by the Heat center.
Jokic – who was often guarded by Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson – has outplayed most opposing bigs this season.
But Whiteside also was victimized by Plumlee, who blocked him twice at the rim in the third quarter, leading to Nuggets dunks.
Whiteside didn’t have much lift on attempts at the rim and wasn’t the active, aggressive force who entered with five consecutive double-doubles.
Whiteside mustered just two points and four rebounds in 16 first half minutes. He started the third quarter with two baskets, but Plumlee then embarrassed him with the two blocks and two baskets on the other end.
Whiteside was then replaced by Bam Adebayo just 4:19 into the third quarter and never returned, closing with six points, eight rebounds and no blocks in 19 minutes.
Plumlee closed with 11 points, eight rebounds and the three blocks. Jokic, meantime, had 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Whiteside entered playing arguably his best ball of the season, with games of 28 points and 11 rebounds, 17 and 19 and 13 and 14 in the first three games of this trip.
“Every night is not going to be perfect,” Spoelstra said. “He’s been trending in the right direction.”
Adebayo wasn’t at his best, finishing with two points and five boards.
And Olynyk was off with his shot, scoring 11 points on a 4 for 13 night.
▪ James Johnson has been a different player since moving to the bench.
The productivity has risen appreciably in four games as a reserve, including 14 points and six rebounds on Monday.
He had 15 points and 6 rebounds against Portland in his first game off the bench, and 9 points, three rebounds and four assists at Sacramento.
“This gets to his identity for whatever reason,” Spoelstra said. “He’s just come alive and I think it’s given him a big confidence boost. It can really help the second unit with his strengths. I think he feels good about it. The team feels good about it. We’re a different team when he’s really dynamic.”
▪ The Heat’s starting guards must shoot free throws better and in Dion Waiters’ case, get to the line more.
Winslow missed two third quarter attempts in the midst of a Nuggets run. He entered at 65.1 percent from the line (71 of 109).
Waiters, meanwhile, isn’t getting to the line enough, with no free throws in his first three games as a starter and seven games in a row overall before finally getting to the stripe in the fourth quarter Monday, missing both of those attempts.
In fact, Waiters has gone 197 minutes in a row without a free throw attempt – puzzling for a player who can often can break down his defender and get to the rim.
Waiters is driving less and shooting more threes than at any time as a member of the Heat. But Waiters said when he does drive to the basket, he’s simply not getting the call.
He’s 1 for 7 on free throws this season and 69.7 percent for his career.
“He’ll get to an aggressive game and a balance,” Spoelstra said. “The first half of the Golden State game is most indicative of how he’ll be playing. I ended up playing him over 40 minutes [Sunday] night. That was too much. I would rather have him shoot those threes and mix in the drives which he will get rather than some of the contested pull up twos.”
Waiters played 30 minutes Monday, closing with 11 points and six assists. Six of his nine field-goal attempts were three-pointers.