Through all the twists and turns of eight days out west, the Miami Heat return to South Florida in a better place.
Having departed one game above .500, the Heat return two above after Friday night’s 104-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center completed a 3-2 trip.
For all the blown leads over the past week, the New Year’s Eve drama of Tyler Herro’s game-winning 3-pointer against the Utah Jazz, and the inability to defeat a Los Angeles Lakers team lacking LeBron James and Anthony Davis, there again is a sense of better days ahead.
Playing in the absence of two starters, with Herro unavailable due to back spasms and Caleb Martin unavailable due to quadriceps and ankle issues, the Heat took advantage of a team dealing with their own injury demons.
Against a Suns roster that entered without Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson and Cam Payne, and then lost Chris Paul for the second half, the Heat rode the 26 points of Victor Oladipo, 21 points and 11 rebounds of Bam Adebayo, and 20 points of Jimmy Butler.
Five Degrees of Heat from Friday’s game:
1. Closing time: With Oladipo banking in a 36-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Heat led 30-23 at the end of the opening period and then were up 51-46 at halftime.
The Heat then pushed to a 14-lead in the third quarter, saw that cut to one late in the period, before going into the fourth up 78-73.
The Heat then pushed back to a 14-point lead early in the fourth, only to see the Suns close within 89-82 with 6:15 to play. That’s when Max Strus stepped up with a four-point play for a 93-82 lead, with another Strus 3-pointer making it 96-82.
But the Heat then reverted to their lead-blowing ways, with the Suns closing within 99-92 with 1:58 left. But that’s when Oladipo stepped up with a 3-pointer of his own, to effectively end it.
2. Taking charge: With Herro out, Butler and Adebayo again stepped up.
Butler played with more of an offense bent at the outset, up to 14 points at the intermission, bullying his way to a 8-of-8 first half from the foul line.
Butler’s sixth free throw moved him past Tracy McGrady for 83rd on the NBA all-time list.
With his third point, Butler passed Bimbo Coles for 16th on the Heat all-time scoring list.
He closed 10 of 10 from the line
Adebayo played Suns center Deandre Ayton mostly to a standoff, which was what was needed, with Ayton closing with 23 points and 14 rebounds.
3. Making his move: The battle of point guards for the ages turned when 37-year-old Paul was unable to make it out for the second half due to hip soreness.
That had 36-year-old Heat guard Kyle Lowry immediately moving into attack mode, scoring the first six points of the second half on a 3-pointer and then 3-point play.
Lowry, though, largely deferred to Oladipo, who found an offensive rhythm Lowry was unable to capture.
Oladipo closed 7 of 10 from the field and 8 of 10 from the line.
4. Two down: After two games of being able to revert back to their primary lineup – the one featuring Adebayo, Martin, Butler, Herro and Lowry – the Heat were two starters down.
Coach Erik Spoelstra said it was a matter of prudence with Martin, who missed two games with the sprained left ankle in December, returned for three games, then missed two with the strained left quadriceps, before being back for the two prior to Friday.
“We want to make sure he’s feeling good, and playing 30 minutes a night probably would not help that,” Spoelstra said.
Herro had not missed time since being held out of eight games in November with a sprained left ankle, appearing in 21 consecutive games prior to Friday.
5. So two in: With Martin and Herro out, Haywood Highsmith opened at power forward, his fourth start of the season.
Saturday is the NBA deadline for the Heat to decide whether to guarantee Highsmith’s contract for the balance of the season or waive him.
Strus, projected as a sixth man coming out of training camp, started for the 21st time in his 38 appearances. He started only 16 games last season, when he ended the season as a starter. He opened 3 of 3 on 3-pointers.
After Oladipo, Gabe Vincent and Dewayne Dedmon entered midway through the first period, the only other available Heat players were two-way center Orlando Robinson and 42-year-old captain Udonis Haslem.