With playoff races heating up, you're likely to hear about "magic numbers" over the next few weeks in the NBA. But for Miami, one of the most telling numbers is "27".
That represents the number of different starting lineups the team has trotted onto the hardwood during this injury-plagued, inconsistent season.
Hassan Whiteside has been a bright spot for the Heat this season but he was unavailable against the Brooklyn Nets due to a one-game suspension for his forearm shove to the back of Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk's head. Without the young center in the lineup, head coach Erik Spoestra relied on Chris Andersen, Luol Deng, Henry Walker, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic. Andersen and Dragic had both been questionable for the game. But during the season where you can't expect the unexpected, both players were available and spectacular for the Heat.
Wade looked like the facilitator from early this season, starting the first quarter with five assists before scoring his first of 28 points on the night. Most of those passes were to Andersen, who had eight points in the first four minutes of the game and finished by tying his career-high of 18 points.
While Miami has struggled to score at times recently, that wasn't the case in the first period when they shot 66.7 percent (compared to just 36 percent for Brooklyn) to lead the game 34-23.
They continued to build the lead in the second period - getting it as high as 18 at one point - before Brooklyn started to claw their way back. Joe Johnson scored six of his 12 total points in the last three minutes of the second quarter and Miami went into halftime with just an 11-point lead despite scoring 62 points.
Deron WIlliams, who has struggled against Miami in recent years, got hot in the third quarter and finished the night with 18 points to lead all Nets scorers. His basket with 5:46 left in the period cut the lead to six. But a number of Miami players responded with Dragic, Andersen and Luol Deng leading a 7-2 run and pushing the lead back to double digits.
The fourth quarter was a tenuous time for the Heat and the hope was that the team would somehow find a way to hold on for a win. A Walker 3-pointer put the lead back up to 16 before Jarrett Jack suddenly caught fire, scoring 14 of his 18-point total in the fourth quarter. He would score nine straight in the last two minutes of the game (and Brooklyn's last 13 points) to cut the lead to just five. But Wade free throws and some timely defense were able to ice the game for the Heat.
Even with this depleted lineup, Miami got big contributions from their bench, namely Mario Chalmers (who hit a big 3-pointer as the game wound down to help seal the victory) and Udonis Haslem, the gritty warrior who finished with just seven points (on 2-of-9 shooting) but added tight defense on Brooklyn's duo of Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. Haslem also grabbed a season-high nine rebounds and had three assists, at least two of which were long Kevin Love-style outlet passes that went full-court for an easy basket. Michael Beasley wasn't much of a scorer (just 3 points) but added a steal and a block as signs of his new-found commitment to defense. And Tyler Johnson, though just of 2-of-5 from the field for 4 points, nearly brought the AmericanAirlines Arena down with this missed dunk attempt:
Miami swept the season series with the Nets, winning all four games this season. The victory further lowered Brooklyn's dwindling playoff hopes but also propelled the Heat back into the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference standings. The Charlotte Hornets mounted an impressive comeback against the Kings on Wednesday, only to fall short by two points.
The Heat will look to build momentum on Friday when they face a struggling Toronto Raptors team that is still one of the best teams in the East.