The Miami Heat practiced Sunday in Chicago, and head coach Erik Spoelstra implored his leaders to do just that: lead.
Dwyane Wade got the message.
Wade and the Heat were reeling entering their Monday-evening tilt with the Bulls, certainly not the hottest team in the league but one that returned home following a wire-to-wire victory over LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland. Having dealt with injuries to four of their six leading scorers the past two weeks, Miami had lost seven of their last eight, including their last three on the road.
Again shorthanded Monday night, with point guard Goran Dragic missing his seventh straight game and center Hassan Whiteside out with an oblique strain, the undermanned and undersized Heat got their leaders to step up when they needed it most. Miami erased a nine-point Bulls lead in the second half and closed the game on a 13-5 run to earn a much needed 89-84 victory over the Bulls.
"When it’s tough we’ve got to lead more," Spoelstra said of himself, Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. "And when it gets tougher we have to lead even more. And that started yesterday in practice, with their approach in shootaround today and the approach (tonight) to bring it with a no-possessions-off mentality."
Wade played every possession, and the Heat needed them all. He scored 28 points, his most in more than a month, and added seven rebounds and five assists. It was a throwback performance for Wade in his hometown, complete with a baseline jumper that kissed off the glass, a dunk in transition, spin moves in the post and timely passes to open teammates, a welcome sight for a team desperate for offense; the Heat hadn't topped 87 points during their four-game losing streak and averaged 86.7 points in their last eight games.
Thirteen of Wade's 21 field goal attempts came in the painted area, and he also went to the free-throw line eight times.
"That’s the biggest thing for our team, when myself, when Goran’s back, when we’re getting in the paint that allows us to be aggressive, scoring the ball and get our teammates better looks," he said. "That was the whole mindset."
A matchup of two of the NBA's best defensive teams — Miami ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, the Bulls eighth — was destined for a low-scoring affair, and the rebounding of fill-in starter Amare Stoudemire (10 in 25 minutes) and the hounding defense from rookie Justise Winslow (Jimmy Butler scored 13 points on 15 shots and just four points in the final period), who had nine rebounds and two steals, helped Miami back into the game after they scored just 12 points in the third quarter.
But in the fourth quarter it was Wade's playmaking — and leadership — that closed the door for the Heat.
He hit a pair of shots early in the period, and later connected on a free throw to tie the game at 82 apiece. Wade then drove the lane and found a baseline-cutting Winslow for a dunk to give the Heat a two-point lead.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
Pau Gasol hit a jumper to tie the game with 1:14 left, but Wade came back and found Bosh open on a pick-and-pop after Gasol followed Wade to the basket with Butler. Bosh connected on the 17-footer, his 18th point to go with seven rebounds, and the Bulls couldn't answer off an inbounds play set up by a Wade deflection.
With 22 seconds left, Wade called for a screen, knowing Gasol had been switching on the wing, and drained a 21-footer over the seven-footer with 22 seconds left to put the game out of reach.
"They were calling a switch majority of the time on that play," Wade said. "I knew they were. Kind of already knew, wasn’t surprised, got a shot I was comfortable with and got it to fall."
Wade called the win "much-needed," an apt assessment for a team that two weeks ago was 21-13 and second in the Eastern Conference. In the midst of a difficult stretch where they'll play 11 of 12 away from American Airlines Arena, Monday's win could act as a springboard for a team that, when healthy, could contend for an Eastern Conference title.
Their health improved Monday, as Luol Deng returned from a brief absence after suffering an eye injury last week, scoring nine points. Beno Udrih was back in the lineup after missing four games, providing some stability at the point in the absence of Dragic. Whiteside's injury isn't considered serious, and Dragic should be back this week, meaning the Heat will be back at full-strength sooner than later as they attempt to make up ground they've lost while dealing with an undermanned roster.
"It’s the NBA. That’s the deal. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves," Spoelstra said. "The league keeps on moving, games keep on coming and you have to be able to respond to it. Ultimately these times can toughen you and you can grow from it if you approach it the right way.
"Our guys have been approaching it, but we need to play better basketball. Guys will be coming back soon enough; we see the light at the end of the tunnel."