TORONTO (SportsDirect Inc.) — The Miami Heat are one of three teams fighting over two spots at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are staring at the most difficult closing stretch of the group.
The Heat will begin a stretch of four games against teams in the top four of the East to close the season when they visit the Toronto Raptors on Friday.
Miami snapped a two-game slide with a 112-99 win at Charlotte on Wednesday to kick off a three-game road trip that concludes at Washington on Saturday, and it finishes the season with home games against Cleveland and the Wizards.
The Heat appeared to be falling off the pace with losses in four of six before James Johnson stepped into the starting lineup to provide a spark along with stars Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside.
The Raptors own the No. 3 spot in the East heading into play on Thursday but are fighting off a charge from Washington.
Toronto won nine of its last 11 games and got a huge boost when All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry returned from a wrist injury and delivered 27 points and 10 assists in Wednesday’s 105-102 win at Detroit.
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET, FSN Sun (Miami), Sportsnet (Toronto)
ABOUT THE HEAT (38-40): Miami coach Erik Spoelstra avoided putting Johnson in the starting lineup all season before finally relenting with the team needing a spark on Wednesday. The veteran power forward responded by scoring 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting, including 6-of-7 from 3-point range. “There’s no other call,” Spoelstra told reporters of the decision to start Johnson. “How many guys do we have left? The minutes he gave us were crazy good. What else are we going to do? We’ve cycled through basically everybody. We’re at the stage in the season. It’s go time.”
ABOUT THE RAPTORS (48-31): Lowry sat out 21 games after undergoing surgery on his right wrist but returned without missing a beat and went 9-of-16 from the floor while logging 42 minutes on Wednesday. “He did so many positive things throughout the game, so it wasn’t necessarily one play,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey told reporters of Lowry. “He makes so many winning plays, attacks before the defense is set, he reads situations, gets to the rim, gets calls, makes free throws, makes the right decision with the ball. You can’t really put a number on a play on his effect on the game.” Fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan picked up some playmaking duties when Lowry was down and continued upon his return with 10 assists on Wednesday.
1. Raptors SF DeMarre Carroll slipped to two points on 1-of-6 shooting Wednesday after averaging 11 points in the previous three contests.
2. Heat SG Rodney McGruder is 5-of-22 from 3-point range over the last six games.
3. Toronto took two of the first three meetings, including a 101-84 triumph in Miami on March 23.
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