MIAMI — Things are looking up for the Miami Heat … in part because the players are all looking to, for and up to Hassan Whiteside.
The Heat center came off the bench to provide a career-high-tying 26 points along with 12 rebounds and five blocks as Miami defeated the Orlando Magic 108-97 on Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Whiteside had seven dunks, most of them off lobs.
“It’s special when you have teammates who are unselfish,” said Whiteside, who made 10-of-15 shots from the floor. “(My teammates) tell me I’m doing a great job. But I’m just doing the easy part.
“For them to throw it up and look for me like that, it builds connection.”
Whiteside, who also made six-of-seven from the foul line, produced his 35th double-double of the season, extending his career high.
Heat point guard Goran Dragic, who had 22 points and eight assists, said he has worked hard to build on-court chemistry with Whiteside.
“I’ve never played with a big guy like ‘Whitey’,” Dragic said. “I’ve never thrown lobs to somebody (like him). I had to adjust my game. I had to learn how to throw lobs.
“I was telling (Whiteside) how he needs to set screens for me to make my job easier. Now he’s looking so good.”
So are the Heat (42-30), 14-1 in its past 15 games against Orlando. The Heat are also 13-6 since the All-Star break as the team battles for seeding in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Meanwhile, Orlando (29-43) lost six straight games and is a virtual lock to finish last in the Southeast Division for the fourth straight year. Orlando was 19-13 on Jan. 1 but has crashed since then.
The Magic was led by Evan Fournier (20 points), Andrew Nicholson (19 points) and Elfrid Payton (14 points, seven assists and seven rebounds).
Payton, a 22-year-old second-year pro, was coming off a triple-double against Detroit, when he 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
He almost did it again on Friday, but he felt short … as did the Magic.
“No moral victories,” Payton said of the Magic, who played without three injured starters.
Even so, Orlando emerged from the first quarter with a 31-28 lead. Fournier picked up a steal and banked in a buzzer-beating shot from the free-throw line to close out the quarter.
Fourier, after colliding with Heat rookie Justise Winslow, suffered a bloody gash on his forehand in the last minute of the second quarter.
Orlando closed the quarter on a 14-5 run and went into halftime with a 57-54 lead. Nicholson came off the bench to give his team a lift, scoring 10 straight Magic points midway through the second quarter. He hit a layup, a free throw, a 3-pointer and two jumpers during that span.
Conversely, for Miami’s defense to allow 57 first-half points did not please the Heat — either the players or the coaches.
“I liked our halftime — the players controlled it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They did most of the discussion. We were not happy about that first half, giving up almost 60 points.”
Spoelstra said part of what happened in the first half was due to Orlando’s “speed and talent.” Spoelstra also said his team did not lack for effort.
Yet, the third quarter saw a renewed commitment to defense for Miami, which closed the period on a 16-2 run, taking a 85-69 lead into the fourth. The Magic never seriously threatened after that Heat charge.
“We missed a lot of open shots, and that cost us,” Payton said of Orlando’s poor third quarter in which his team was outscored by 19 points. “They got long rebounds and were able to push.”
NOTES: This was the last game as a teenager for Heat SF Justise Winslow, who turns 20 on Saturday. … Heat F Luol Deng (thigh) returned after missing Miami’s previous game. He finished with 10 points and a season-high 13 rebounds. … Heat rookie SG Josh Richardson said his post-All-Star break hot-shooting streak started when he stopped playing video games on game days. … Magic SG Victor Oladipo (wrist) sat out after getting hurt on Wednesday vs. the Detroit Pistons. He was averaging 25.0 points in March. … Magic F Ersan Ilyasova (sprained shoulder) is also out. … Magic C Nikola Vucevic normally gives Miami trouble, including a career-high 29-rebound game on Dec. 31, 2012. But he has been out since March 7 due to a strained right groin and has been replaced in the starting lineup by C Dewayne Dedmon, who was brought up from Erie of the NBA Development League earlier this month.