MEMPHIS — Undersized and undermanned, the Heat took the floor on Wednesday against one of the league’s most rugged teams, and for three quarters nearly shot its way to an unlikely victory.
With three centers out of commission, the Heat lacked the requisite size to pound inside with Memphis bruisers Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Add to that mismatch the struggle of playing on the second night of a back-to-back and Heat’s shooters' legs were shot by the fourth quarter. Understandably, the Heat faded in the final period at Memphis’ FedEx Forum, losing 107-102 to Grizzlies and also losing control of first place in the Eastern Conference.
While the Heat (53-25) was without sick or injured players in Memphis, the Indiana Pacers simply rested all five of its starters against the embarrassing Milwaukee Bucks. The unconventional strategy by Pacers coach Frank Vogel paid off. The Pacers (54-25) defeated the Bucks to move into the first place in the East, half a game ahead of the Heat in the standings.
Of course, that can all change on Friday when the Heat hosts the Pacers in what could be both teams’ most important game of season. While the No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs could be determined, James said the top spot in the bracket isn’t the Heat’s biggest concern.
“It’s not our goal to control our destiny with the No.1 seed,” said LeBron James, who finished with a game-high 37 points. “I want to get healthy. That’s all that we care about, man, going into the postseason healthy. We got more problems as far as health issues than the No.1 seed.”
Instead of risking injury this close to the playoffs, the Heat played it safe and rested Dwyane Wade for his eighth-straight game and also gave Chris Andersen the night off. Andersen played through a sore back on Tuesday, but watched from the bench in Memphis. He is expected to play an important role in the Heat’s home game against the Pacers. Greg Oden also did not play against Memphis. Like Wade, Oden has missed eight-straight games.
Whether or not Udonis Haslem will be available for the marquee game on Friday is unknown. Haslem did not travel with the Heat to Memphis due to a stomach virus, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wasn’t sure if Haslem would be available for the Heat’s penultimate home game of regular season.
With Wade out once again, James forced the action offensively and went 14 of 23 from the field and 3 of 5 from three-point range. He was also 6 of 7 from the free-throw line. James had five assists to five turnvoers. The Heat had 15 turnovers as a team, including five in the fourth quarter. Rashard Lewis had 17 points off the bench. The Heat was 15 of 25 from three-point range (60 percent) in the loss. Chris Bosh scored 13 points.
“You’re just out there trying to do everything you can to win a ball game, and we had some break downs,” Lewis said. “I think more than anything the turnovers is what hurt us down the stretch. They got layups an they made it hard for us to score.”
A corner three-pointer by Mike Conley gave the Grizzlies a 100-93 lead with 4:03 left and James let out a noticeable sigh of frustration amid the 18,000 screaming fans at FedEx Forum. Then it was Nick Calathes’ turn to send the building to its collective feet.
The former star point guard for the University of Florida stripped Ray Allen of the ball to trigger a fast break that ended with another three-pointer by Conley. That put the Grizzlies ahead by 10 points with 3:34 left.
A clear-path foul by Mario Chalmers on Conley with 2:18 left put the Grizzlies back in front by 10 points, and a stunning baseline dunk by Grizzlies sixth man Tony Allen was the exclamation point on a badly needed win for Memphis. Entering the game, the Grizzlies (46-32) trailed the Phoenix Suns by one game in the loss column for the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference standings.
Conley led the Grizzlies with 26 points, going 10 of 18 from the field and 3 of 7 from the three-point range. Zach Randolph had 25 points and Marc Gasol had 20 points. Memphis shot 55.1 percent and out-rebounded the Heat 41-27.
“They got it up to an eight-point lead and that’s like being down by 20 to a team like this,” Bosh said.
A three-pointer by little-used forward Justin Hamilton gave the Heat an eight-point lead with 3:53 remaining in the third quarter, but the Grizzlies closed the period with a flourish and tied the game 80-80 entering the fourth quarter.
A lean-in jumper from 20 feet by James gave the Heat a five-point lead with 20 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Grizzlies amazingly reeled off five points in the final second of the period to tie it. Following a layup by Gasol with one second remaining, Heat reserve point guard Norris Cole committed a turnover in the open court. Memphis guard Tony Allen inbounded the final possession to Courtney Lee, who somehow got off a running one-handed three-pointer before the buzzer. Officials initially ruled the shot came after the buzzer, but overturned the ruling after a video review. Lee finished with 18 points.
In the first three quarters of the game, the Heat shot 53.3 percent from the field and 57.1 percent (12 of 21) from three-point range.
Gasol opened the fourth quarter with a driving dunk to give the Grizzlies its first lead since the first quarter, and Memphis quickly built a lead on a well-timed three-pointer by Conley and an impressive open-court dunk by Allen, the Grizzlies’ defensive stalwart.
On paper, the Heat seemed outmanned to begin the game, but the three-point shot is the great equalizer, and so the visiting team turned a game in which it was grossly overmatched in the paint into a shooting exhibition. The Heat started the game 9 of 10 from distance.