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Miami Heat Clawing Toward Playoff Berth and Sunday NBA Takeaways

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 30, 2015

Robert Mayer/USA Today

Dwyane Wade was talking about how the Miami Heat managed to beat the Detroit Pistons by a final score of 109-102 Sunday when he offered reporters a two-word explanation for the result, via Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press:

Tim Reynolds @ByTimReynolds

Wade: "We fight."

But he may as well have been summarizing Miami's remarkable season in its entirety.

The Heat have staved off age, injury, regression and a host of other factors that should have conspired to keep them from securing a playoff spot.

All season long and especially in their shorthanded win over the Pistons, the Heat have opted instead to fight.

Already missing Chris Andersen and Hassan Whiteside, the Heat went into Sunday's tilt with just nine healthy bodies. After Luol Deng and Michael Beasley each left the game with injuries (neither is believed to be serious), Miami had just seven upright soldiers.

Udonis Haslem, long a symbol of the Heat's professionalism and resolve, was matter-of-fact when discussing the way he and his team managed to hold off the hulking Pistons, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

Udonis Haslem on his injuries: "We just take the last man standing approach. It just turns out I'm the last man standing as far as our 5."

Haslem was an inspiration, channeling his younger self en route to 18 points and 13 rebounds. But the Heat had to employ some flimsy tactics whenever he rested to pull this one off. With Miami short on bench help and actual height, the team's ability to stay ahead simply didn't compute, per ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh:

Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh

1) The Heat are playing 2-3 zone; 2) Mario Chalmers is one of the bigs; 3) Pistons are down 12.

Afterward, per Skolnick, the results still didn't make any sense:

Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick

The Pistons got 63 points, 20 rebounds & 26-of-34 shooting from Reggie Jackson & Andre Drummond & somehow lost to a team w/ 7 guys.

Miami has had ample reason to pack it in this season. It started the year losing LeBron James and with him any realistic championship hopes. Josh McRoberts has been out since early December, which doesn't sound like a big deal until you realize he was among Miami's biggest free-agent acquisitions.

Chris Bosh, of course, is also done for the season after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs.

There's been some good: Pulling Whiteside off the scrap heap and trading for Goran Dragic injected new promise, making the Heat a quietly dangerous playoff threat...if they can get healthy.

Wade, who provided the blunt explanation for the Heat's survival, has also been their keenest instrument. He dropped 40 on the Pistons, including 19 in the fourth quarter. He did things his own way, without making a single three-point shot. Like the Heat as a unit, Wade has made a Hall of Fame career out of dismissing limitations that should have prevented him from succeeding.

We're living in an NBA age, after all, in which shooting the three is now a prerequisite for many power forwards. Shooting guards who can't stretch the floor are practically extinct.

Per NBA writer Couper Moorhead:

Couper Moorhead @CoupNBA

Dwyane Wade becomes the second guard, after Kobe, since Michael Jordan retired to score 40 points without hitting a three after age 33.

We've seen enough of Wade and his team to know that excuses, trends and limitations don't matter. They fight, and in doing so this year, they've separated themselves from much of the mess at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Miami is now one-and-a-half games clear of the eighth-ranked Brooklyn Nets and two games up on the No. 9 Boston Celtics.

In fact, the Heat are now as close to the No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks as they are to the lottery.

Next up: bringing the fight to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a potential two-versus-seven matchup, a bout the contending Cavs would almost certainly prefer to avoid. The Heat have scrapped their way to a 2-1 record against Cleveland this year, and you can bet Wade and Co. won't pull a single punch in what would be a highly emotional series.

Around the Association

DeAndre Jordan Got Another One

If a late-to-rotate Evan Turner is the last line of defense against a DeAndre Jordan alley-oop, your pick-and-roll defense has utterly, irretrievably failed. The only thing to do at that point is duck.

Turner was inexplicably concerned with Austin Rivers on the left wing, didn't get into the middle to impede Jordan in time and could only watch as DJ jet-packed into the rafters to hammer home a Chris Paul lob.

The Los Angeles Clippers handily took care of business against Doc Rivers' former squad, opening up a massive lead before coasting to a 119-106 win. Jordan scored 15 points and grabbed 14 boards, but J.J. Redick's game-high 27 continued what might be the hottest streak of his career.

The Clips are gearing up for the postseason and have now won eight of their last 10.

As everyone on Boston's bench probably yelled to Turner, "Watch out."

The Grizzlies Aren't Measuring Up

Michael Thomas/Associated Press

The Memphis Grizzlies got a shot this past week to measure themselves against the three teams many—yours truly included—view as the league's true trio of title contenders.

A 103-89 trouncing at the hands of the "oh right, they're awesome again" San Antonio Spurs Sunday completed an 0-3 stretch for the Grizz that also included severe beatdowns by the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.

It seems we now know where Memphis stands in the postseason hierarchy, and it's not an encouraging place, according to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton:

Kevin Pelton @kpelton

Humbling week for the Grizzlies. More competitive tonight, but they don't appear to be in the same tier as the NBA's best teams.

The good news is the Grizzlies have time to get themselves together before the first round. The bad news is the Spurs are in position to meet them there. Though Memphis has split its four-game season series against San Antonio, it's hard not to view this most recent defeat as the most informative.

The Spurs have returned to form, and the Grizzlies are all bent out of shape. You do the math on how that potential postseason series will go.

No Shame in Being Second-Best

The Houston Rockets elevated themselves to second place in the West by winning what might have been the least enjoyable game of the year, a 99-91 slog against the Washington Wizards that featured 70 total free throws and 36 combined turnovers.

And they did it without Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones.

James Harden scored 24 to lead the Rockets, and Dwight Howard posted 11 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes.

Through a mixture of luck (Houston has won 50 games despite a modest plus-3.3 per-game differential) and resourcefulness, Harden's Rockets have climbed above everyone but the otherworldly Golden State Warriors in their conference.

Which means they're actually first among teams that haven't been sent from heaven to show the world what perfect basketball looks like. So that's pretty good.

Washington, meanwhile, will have to wait for its next chance to secure a playoff spot; a win against Houston would have done it. John Wall gave it his best, scoring 25 points to go along with 12 assists, eight rebounds and four steals.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks up next, the Wiz won't have to wait long.

Things Are Still Messy in the East

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Aside from the Heat, who've distanced themselves from the field a bit, the four other teams vying for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference remain a tangled mess of sub-mediocrity.

The Celtics fell to the Clippers, which leaves them a half-game behind the Brooklyn Nets, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers 107-99 to collect their third consecutive win. Brook Lopez, who's averaged 28.2 points per game on 60.8 percent shooting in his last five, put up a game-high 30 points and 11 rebounds in that one.

The Indiana Pacers knocked off the Dallas Mavericks Sunday, riding 28 points from C.J. Miles (you read that correctly) to a 104-99 victory. Rajon Rondo (17 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds) put together one of his best games since joining the Mavs, but it wasn't enough to hold off a surprisingly frisky Indiana team that shot 50 percent from the field overall.

The Charlotte Hornets were idle Sunday, so they remain a half-game back of the Celtics and Pacers for the ninth spot in the East.

Got all that?

If the Heat show any sign of vulnerability, both the seventh and eighth spots could change hands plenty of times in the season's final couple of weeks. Five squads are within sniffing distance of those two positions, and if the Bucks remain shaky, who knows how complicated the lower reaches of the East might get.

None of the teams mentioned, by the way, are above .500. Yet this is still shaping up to be pretty exciting—much in the same way a scrap over an upturned trash can between rabid, undernourished raccoons can be entertaining.

The 76ers Defense Is for Real

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

It's tempting to say the Cavaliers just looked past the 76ers, which could explain the narrow 87-86 win LeBron James and friends logged on Sunday. But that does a disservice to a Sixers defense that has been quietly stout for a good chunk of the season.

After limiting the Cavs to 38.8 percent shooting and forcing 17 turnovers, Philly ranks 10th in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com, narrowly ahead of more reputable outfits in Chicago and Indiana.

That's a remarkable achievement for a club composed almost entirely of unproven and untested young players.

The Sixers test their talent in other ways as well, always with an eye toward the future. Proof: Nerlens Noel is now playing power forward more often because Philadelphia wants to prepare him for life alongside center Joel Embiid.

The learning curve has been steep, according to Dei Lynam of CSNPhilly.com: "Nerlens Noel took another step in his development, starting at the power forward position instead of being the guy who mans the middle. Noel finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and, for a second straight game, he did not come up with a blocked shot."

Growing pains are a part of life for the Sixers, but actual evidence of growth (especially on defense) makes them easier to bear.

Russell Westbrook Dunks on Teammates Now

Russell Westbrook has been in a competitive fugue state for a few weeks now, so it's no surprise the Oklahoma City Thunder's one-man wrecking crew failed to recognize (or care) that his teammate, Enes Kanter, was in his alley-oop flight path.

The gruesome result, from Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:

Westbrook elevated to slam home the lob en route to 33 points in another 38 frenzied minutes as the Thunder ended a two-game slide and moved a full four games ahead of the Phoenix Suns with a 109-97 win.

Opponents have long known the folly of trying to get in Westbrook's way. Teammates are starting to figure it out now, too.

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