The face of despair was the face of the Miami Heat on Friday night, when it fell by 14 points in the third quarter.
It turned out to be a good look, or at least a necessary look, which will be even more necessary in the heated middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Forced to face some of Donovan Mitchell’s best, the Heat put up some much-needed resistance in a 119-115 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to salvage a 3-3 homestand,
“We’re fighting for our competitive lives right now,” said coach Erik Spoelstra after the last criticism of the season. “Is this the position we want to be in now? No. But that’s what you want, you want games with incredible pressure and context.”
While there’s still work to be done to climb out of an Eastern Conference play-in ranking and into one of the six automatic playoff seeds in the East, this was a night the Heat faced adversity when it was casting its ugliest face.
A loss would cut the Heat’s lead of No. 7 in the East to just half a game over the Atlanta Hawks, who won earlier in the evening. Instead, the Heat remained 2 1/2 games away from No. 6 Brooklyn Nets and three No. 5 New York Knicks.
“At this point,” said point guard Tyler Herro, “all of these games are playoffs for us.”
With the game coming within five points in the final five minutes, it left the Heat with a league-high 48th game of the season.
Creepy, as always.
Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 33 points, backed by 25 from Herro, 19 from Bam Adebayo, with Max Strus providing much-needed 3-point support on a 14-point effort off the bench.
Mitchell led the Cavaliers with 42 points, his ninth 40-point game of the season.
Five degrees of heat from Friday’s game:
1. Closing time: The Heat led 27-26 at the end of the first period, but trailed 59-50 at halftime.
The Heat then closed to one early in the third quarter as they were down 14 late in the period before closing at 89-82 going into the fourth.
Then, with Butler on the bench, the Heat extended to a four-point lead early in the quarter, with Butler shortly thereafter returning to help extend the Heat’s lead to seven.
“We just had to stay afloat,” Herro said of the fourth quarter minutes without Butler.
A Caris LeVert 3-pointer tied Cleveland at 105-101, with a Ricky Rubio 3-pointer with 3:03 to play, cutting the Heat’s deficit to 107-104.
But a 3-pointer by Strus, part of the Heat’s second-half 3-point revival, put the Heat’s lead at 110-104, with a 3-pointer by Herro opening up the 113-106 lead with 1:35 remaining. .
But Mitchell came back, putting Cleveland up 113-110 with 64 seconds left.
An offensive foul on Butler and an Evan Mobley alley-oop dunk put Cleveland up 113-112 with 38.7 seconds to play.
Little pretense ensued, as Butler threw an inbounds pass and dribbled a 19-foot jump to a 115-112 lead with 18 seconds left, leading to Cleveland’s final timeout.
From there, Mitchell turned the corner down the lane, fouled Adebayo, and drained both free throws to put Cleveland up 115-114 with 10.3 seconds to play.
Caleb Martin then fouled with 8.9 seconds to play, his first trip of the night to the line, draining both for a 117-114 Heat lead.
In a break from Heat norm, Butler then fouled Mitchell with 5.6 seconds to play before Cleveland could fire a potential tying 3-pointer,
“I felt totally comfortable with Jimmy making that decision,” Spoelstra said of the foul.
Mitchell hit the first free throw, intentionally missed the second, with Butler securing the error’s rebound.
With a foul, Butler put it on the line with a pair of free throws.
“You want to see what this competition can bring out of you,” Spoelstra said.
2. Butler time: Butler scored 11 points in the third quarter as he led the Heat’s second half comeback to move to 21 points in the quarter.
But it was also when he was pulled into the usual rest at the start of the fourth, a reality and necessity for the 33-year-old.
This time, the Heat nailed it with Butler in his absence, taking a 97-94 lead when he returned with 6:56 to play.
With his third point, Butler passed Mario Chalmers for 13th on the Heat’s all-time leading scorers list.
Butler closed out 12-of-16 from the field and 8-of-9 from the line.
“I feel like we can say that about a lot of these games, but that’s what the great ones do,” Spoelstra said. “It is the epitome of efficiency.”
3. Boy wondering: No, not always the best shot selection, but Herro’s fourth-quarter drive was what the Heat needed while Butler rested, including a 3-point transition that put the Heat up 93-91 with 8:44 to play.
Not only did Herro keep the Heat afloat with his 3-point shooting, but he was also aggressive on the boards, with the Heat again playing smaller lineups at closing time against the Cavaliers’ length, closing out with nine rebounds.
With his ninth point, Herro passed Shaquille O’Neal for 18th on the Heat’s all-time leading scorers list.
Of his somewhat daring 3-pointer in transition, Herro said with a smile, “It’s a good shot if you hit it. Spo can’t say anything if you get it.
4. Something new: Kyle Lowry, who missed his 15th straight game with knee pain, underwent a vigorous pre-game shooting regime, expected to return in Saturday’s game against the Orlando Magic.
The team confirmed after the game that Lowry will be travelling.
A Lowry comeback would come at a stage where backup point guard Gabe Vincent was struggling, including three missed shots on Friday night that didn’t even hit the rim.
If Lowry returns as a backup, it will be his first game off the bench with the Heat.
“That’s my guy, that’s my brother,” Butler said. “I’m happy to have him back. He’s going to change the game in so many ways for this team.”
5. Individual show: Mitchell was 25 points at halftime, 9-of-12 from the field and 6-of-8 three-pointers. The Heat, by comparison, were 3-for-10 on 3-pointers in the first half.
Mitchell scored 17 points in the second period as the Cavaliers outscored the Heat 33-22.
Mitchell then moved up to fourth with 33 points, already tying a season high at that stage with eight 3-pointers.
The game took on a different guise with Cleveland guard Daruis Garland sidelined with a hamstring injury sustained in Cleveland’s Wednesday night win over the Heat. This made Caris LeVert start in her place. Garland led Cleveland with 25 points in Wednesday night’s victory.
The Cavaliers went 10-0 in Garland’s absence this season.
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