Ok. First the let's get to tonight's game.
The Miami Heat fell behind 7-0, but managed to trail by only one at the end of the quarter thanks to forcing some early Magic turnovers and getting Chris Bosh, who had missed the prior eight games, involved early. The game was fluid and competitive and Miami came out with the requisite focus to take care of business that they completely lacked in recent home losses to Utah & Memphis.
By the second quarter, it quickly became it was going to be the Danny Granger show. Granger had been much maligned for his poor play in the past and rightfully so. Earlier this season, his jumper was woefully flat and he had major trouble finishing in the paint. His best NBA days seemed more and more like a distant memory. But tonight Granger built on a successive string of decent performances to truly breakout and carry the team. Granger made his first five three pointers and finished the game with a season high 21 points and six three pointers. His three point shooting was basically all the entire team could muster (Miami was 7-14, 14 being an uncharacteristically low number of attempts)
By halftime, Miami had a 53-50 lead. The Heat defense was a bit concerning and the third quarter was looming (Miami has not played well in 3rd quarters), but Miami had built up a 10 point lead before the Magic would go on a run to tie it by the end of the 3rd. As usual, Miami had no answer for Nicola Vucevic, whose numbers vs the Heat are Wilt Chamberlain-like at this point. He was supported by the Magic's other two big guns in Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo. The three Magic stars combined for 66 points and all hit their share of timely baskets.
By the fourth quarter, the Magic built up an 85-80 lead as the dual point guard lineup failed to keep Miami afloat (more on them later). Once Dwyane Wade reentered, he put on a spectacular display, scoring seven straight points in a little over a minute and ending with 15 for the quarter (25 total).
By crunch time, Miami held a 101-97 lead with a little over a minute left, but they would not score again. Victor Oladipo would score Orlando's last five points, two layups and 1-2 at the foul line on a late Cole foul that gave the Magic a one-point lead, and Wade would settle for long jumpers on Miami's last two possessions, missing a contested stepback on the final possession that started with six seconds that would've given Miami the win.
There were a ton of positives in tonight's game. Bosh's return (20 points, 8 rebounds), Granger's emergence, Wade's continued aggressiveness, and the surprising size offered by D-Leaguer Hassan Whiteside (8 points, 7 rebounds). So a loss like this is a bitter pill to swallow and this homestand has been nothing short of a disaster for the team.
At 2-5 in their last seven, Miami sits at 14-18 on the season. Other than a big win against the Cavaliers on Christmas, Miami has blown leads, come out uninspired, or simply haven't been able to make the timely open buckets that other teams have been. Miami has fallen to 8th in the East and with a brutal road trip looming are at risk of falling out of the playoff picture.
One glaring issue tonight and all December has been the point guard play. Norris Cole is averaging career high counting stats across the board with his increased minutes, but is shooting career worsts across the board. After showing significant progress with his three point shooting the past two years, Cole is at 24% from downtown on the year and teams are repeatedly unafraid to leave him open.
Mario Chalmers, who regained his starting point guard spot from Cole, hasn't been the same player in December (his earlier play in November was a huge boost for the team). He's averaged 10 points and four assists per game on the month, which is decent, but he's shot 35% from the field and a scant 20% from three. Chalmers is an excellent three point shooter and his past numbers reflect that, but his slump, along with Cole's season-long struggles scoring have given Miami a glaring deficit nearly every time they face opposing backcourts. Wade alone is unable to compensate and Shabazz Napier has fallen out of favor with the staff.
The rest of the rotation has been inconsistent with injuries and matchups dictating who plays and who doesn't. Tonight neither Shawne Williams or Udonis Haslem played a minute after playing significant roles with Chris Bosh out. Hassan Whiteside has become an option as of late, but his poor foul shooting and his own propensity to foul leaves him as a limited resource at best.
It hasn't felt this bad in a while for the franchise. There is still plenty of time to right the ship, but the team cannot afford any more injuries that throw off the rotation and they have to make up ground soon. With the core group finally intact and Danny Granger showing he's finally ready for the 6th man role, the offensive talent is there, but the team needs to show focus for a full 48 minutes and cannot sleep on any team they feel as inferior (as the Sixers would teach them).
Miami heads to the road to take on the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. Tipoff is set for 3:00 PM (not a typo. It's early folks). Miami has been a better road team and it will be a chance for Danny Granger to exact a measure of revenge on his former club.