It was such an encouraging game until it wasn't.
The Miami Heat held a lead against the Southeast division-leading Washington Wizards for most of the second half Friday night. But the Wizards took the lead for good on a Paul Pierce tip-in off a John Wall missed layup with 1:32 left. Twice in the final 34 seconds, Miami had the ball down three. The first time, Dwyane Wade missed a floater in the paint. The Wizards double-teamed Wade the next time, forcing a turnover.
Miami fell to the Wizards, 105-103, losing their fifth consecutive home game and falling three games below .500 for the first time this season. Yet because Brooklyn keeps losing as well, the Heat somehow still have the seventh seed in what is now more than ever the (L)Eastern Conference.
Let's start with the positives. For the first time since Nov. 16, Miami managed to come within single digits in a loss (yes, it's been that long, and yes, I'm counting that as a positive). Erik Spoelstra used his 11th different starting five this season, slotting Mario Chalmers into the point guard spot and putting Shawne Williams next to Chris Andersen in the front-court. Spoelstra has an aversion to starting his five best players -- remember when Chris Bosh came off the bench in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals? -- but he finally relented tonight.
Luol Deng scored 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field including two 3s -- one with 3:37 left that gave Miami its last lead -- and grabbed five rebounds. Where was this guy against the Utah Jazz? Deng also took his turn chasing Bradley Beal off of screens, and he and Wade forced Beal into a 4-for-15 shooting night. Mario Chalmers added 14 points and five assists, but he scored all but two of his points in the first half. He also turned the ball over four times in 36 minutes. Those two players need to score in double figures in Chris Bosh's indefinite absence.
Wade, meanwhile, offered up a mixed bag. He shot an uneven 12-for-26 from the field and turned the ball over five times. He shot far too many contested long twos and complained to an official instead of attempting to rebound one of his missed long jumpers in the fourth quarter. But he made spectacular passes en route to eight assists, including pick-and-rolls to Udonis Haslem and Hassan Whiteside. He scored 15 points in the fourth, setting up at the top of the key again and again -- reminiscent of his pre-LeBron days. He missed a crucial floater with 22 seconds left, but he's still an elite player.
For his part, Whiteside received his first meaningful minutes of the season, and he played well. The 7-footer scored six points and grabbed seven boards in 15 minutes. His girth impacted the game for Miami on the glass and at the rim. Spoelstra even kept Whiteside in for much of the fourth quarter, and it was working. Whiteside committed five fouls in his brief stint, but he showed enough to earn rotation minutes in Miami's next game. Haslem added 11 points off the bench on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting, including finally hitting some jumpers.
To quote Jay Z, moral victories is for minor league coaches. But the Heat will face a Boston Celtics team fresh off the Rajon Rondo trade Sunday evening at 6 p.m. at home. One would hope that Miami can bottle up the positives in this game and defeat a team in tank mode.