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Whiteside’s tip-in saves Heat in crucial game

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The Heat moved a game ahead of Chicago for the eighth seed.

NBA: Miami Heat at Detroit Pistons Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

In the NBA playoffs, successful teams find ways to win competitive games. And in a crucial game for both the eighth-seeded Miami Heat and 10th-seeded Detroit Pistons, the Heat found a way to win.

Even after blowing a 12-point third-quarter lead. Even after going 1-for-10 in one stretch that spanned parts of the third and fourth quarters. Even after committing six fourth-quarter turnovers.

And even after turning the ball over down 94-92 with 44 seconds left.

Yes, this ending was wacky. And Ish Smith made a jumper with 30 seconds left to put Detroit up 96-92. After a Miami timeout, Stanley Johnson committed a violation that I am not aware of (and that I can strain to recall ever being called) while defending the in-bounder James Johnson. Referee Mark Davis called a technical foul, and Goran Dragic made the free throw. Dragic made a jumper about five seconds later, so Miami was down just one with 24.5 seconds left.

After pressuring the Pistons, James Johnson and Stanley Johnson were called for a jump-ball. Stanley Johnson won the tip, but Dragic tracked down the loose ball. Miami called their final 20-second timeout. Erik Spoelstra set up a jumper for James Johnson, who missed. Dragic attempted a tip-in that also clanked off the rim. But Hassan Whiteside tipped in the shot at the buzzer, giving the Heat a huge 97-96.

This win put the Heat a game ahead of Chicago for the eighth seed, and Detroit fell two-and-a-half games out of the playoff picture. After losing three of their last four games, Miami needed to win on the road against the Pistons. Somehow, they did.

Tuesday night’s thriller looked like a weird first-round playoff game — both teams competing hard but committing several bone-headed mistakes. The Heat stood in control most of the way, and Erik Spoelstra should not have waited until the seven-minute mark of the fourth quarter to put Dragic back in (he went to the bench towards the end of the third quarter). Spoelstra didn’t put Whiteside back in until past the six-minute mark of the fourth period. Miami’s 1-for-10 series of broken possessions came without the Heat’s two best players, when James Johnson tried a little too much and when Heat possessions ended with Josh Richardson trying to create a shot.

The Heat led most of this game because Dragic shook off his struggles since Dion Waiters’ injury and was back to the explosive point guard he’s been this year. Dragic finished with 28 points on 9-of-16 shooting from the field, four rebounds and four assists.

Whiteside missed out on a double-double, his game-winning tip-in only his ninth board of the night. But the Heat center added 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field. His right (shooting) hand, still heavily taped after requiring 13 stitches, prevented him from grabbing a few rebounds or making a few shots. But tonight was another step forward into seeing Whiteside continue to put his game together. Look at this beautiful pass he makes to Rodney McGruder on this play coming off a pick-and-roll. Whiteside would have committed an offensive foul on a play like this one last year. (Although McGruder committed that costly turnover with 44 seconds left, the Heat starting rookie had 12 points, including three baskets at the end of the first half to save offensive possessions.)

And despite his four turnovers and occasional carelessness with the ball, James Johnson helped the Heat win this game. During Miami’s fourth-quarter drought, Johnson made a huge 3-pointer and then arguably the dunk of the year.

Johnson finished with 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field and six rebounds. The Heat visit the New York Knicks tomorrow night at 7:30.