For all of the Miami Heat's hideous offensive numbers, and they truly were rancid, coach Erik Spoelstra made one thing pointedly clear after Wednesday night's 91-89 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena:
"It was pretty surprising that we still had a chance there at the end, but our defense really stepped up," he said after the Heat shot a season-worst 3 of 28 on 3-pointers, 14 of 25 from the foul line and mixed in 20 turnovers.
"And that's what we've been talking about, so we're going to stay with that road map right now. Because we're putting together an identity that our guys really are starting to find some purpose with. And it gives you a chance to win games at the end."
"This would have been such a great game to win when you play horribly offensively," Spoelstra continued. "Whatever it was, 3 for 28, that's not going to happen every night. But then you still have a chance to win. Again, we're starting to build some competitive character, to be there at the end, shooting what we did from the 3-point line, the free-throw line and then the turnovers on top of that."
And the thing is, they were right there, the ball in James Johnson's hands in transition, down by that final margin, off a missed free throw by Kyle Korver with seven seconds to play.
Johnson never got a shot off, bypassing potential passes to Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson.
"I saw Tyler sprinting ahead -- it was going to be a tough pass for me to make -- and J-Rich sprinting ahead," Johnson said. "And [James] was backing up. I was going downhill against him. I liked what I was doing. The only thing is, he's LeBron and he made a great read, and his defense prevailed that time. You got to take it for what it is. Tomorrow, I'll probably be doing 100 transition drills."
Spoelstra, out of timeouts, had no issue with the approach.
"We like J.J. as a locomotive," Spoelstra said. "I don't know if there's anybody else back there that would have stopped J.J. from getting to the rim. But we've seen it before. When he gets a head of steam, he reminds me of the guy that was back there. And LeBron met and was able to stop him, basically, in the paint. And I don't think there's anybody else in the league that can do that."
With the loss, the Heat failed to seize the opportunity to move ahead of Cleveland into third place in the Eastern Conference. Instead, Spoelstra's team now stands 1-1 on this four-game trip that concludes with a back-to-back set Friday night against the Philadelphia 76ers and Saturday night against the Blake Griffin-bolstered Detroit Pistons.
"They shot under 40 percent from the field. The games are in the low 90s. We were in a good position," Heat guard Goran Dragic said. "Sometimes it's not enough. We played OK. We feel like if we played a little bit better we can win that game."With James taking control late on his 24-point night, Cleveland had just enough to hold on on a night they shot just 35 percent from the field and blew an early 14-point lead.
Dragic led the Heat with 18, the only Heat player to score more than 15.
The Cavaliers were without forward Kevin Love, after he broke his hand in Tuesday's loss to the shorthanded Pistons.
That had Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue moving Jae Crowder into his starting lineup and cycling through 10 players in the first period, with former Heat guard Dwyane Wade the first reserve off Cleveland's bench. Wade closed with nine points on 2-of-8 shooting and five rebounds.
With both teams struggling to score, a Korver 3-pointer with 6:35 to play put Cleveland ahead 81-77. Moments later the Heat fell to 3 of 27 on 3-pointers on a Kelly Olynyk miss.
A pair of James Johnson baskets then got the Heat into an 81-81 tie with 4:25 to play, with an Olynyk inside score giving the Heat an 83-81 lead with exactly four minutes to play.
Cleveland later tied it 83-83 on a James drive and he then scored on another drive for an 85-83 Cleveland lead with just over two minutes to play, matched by a scoop from Olynyk for an 85-85 tie with 1:45 left.
James then found Jae Crowder for a 3-pointer and an 88-85 Cleveland lead with 1:21 left, with Josh Richardson scoring inside with one minute left to pull the Heat within one.
The Heat then came out of a timeout with Tyler Johnson off on an open 3-point look.
A pair of free throws by Isaiah Thomas with 18.8 second to play then pushed Cleveland's lead to 90-87.
Olynyk then scored inside with 12.1 seconds to go, drawing the Heat within 90-89, leading to Cleveland's final timeout.
The Cavaliers then struggled to inbound, leading to video review, retaining possession.
That led to Korver getting to the line with those seven seconds to play, making only the first of the two free throws.
"We’re going to have nights like this offensively," James Johnson said. "But as long as our defense stays intact, regardless of whether we're making shots or missing shots, we’re going to be fine."
It was the second game of the three-game season series, with the Cavaliers to visit AmericanAirlines Arena on March 27, in their lone visit of the season.
The Cavaliers won the first meeting 108-97 Nov. 28 in Cleveland, behind 38 points from Love and 21 points and 12 rebounds from James. The Heat got 21 points in the loss from since-sidelined former Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters. That loss snapped a three-game Heat winning streak against the Cavaliers.
The Heat entered having lost four of previous last five visits to Cleveland.
The game was the second on a four-game trip for the Heat and opened a run of three games in four nights.
The Heat were coming off Monday's 95-88 victory in Dallas, where they were led by Whiteside's 25 points and 14 rebounds, limiting the Mavericks to .384 shooting.
The game concludes a back-to-back set for the Cavaliers, coming off Tuesday's loss in Detroit.
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