Led by Dragic, Waiters, Heat ready to face improving 76ers

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Thanks to the backcourt partnership of Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, the Miami Heat are hot on the chase of the Detroit Pistons for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff position.

On Wednesday night, the Heat (27-33) return home to face the Philadelphia 76ers (22-37) at AmericanAirlines Arena, and Miami is hoping that the Dragic-Waiters combination continues to blossom.

With Dragic and Waiters starting together, the Heat are 18-11 this season, and that includes Monday's 96-89 loss at the Dallas Mavericks.

Regarding Dragic and Waiters, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told The Miami Herald that his backcourt duo fits exceptionally well.

"They enjoy playing with each other," Spoelstra said. "They have chemistry and cohesiveness, and that takes time (to build). Those guys enjoy how their games complement each other. They respect each other's strengths."

Although Dragic is the point man and Waiters is designated as the shooting guard, they both aggressively hunt their own shots.

"They're tough to keep out of the paint," Spoelstra said. "But they are both willing passers. When you have two guys like that, it really helps your offense."

Dragic scored 24 points against the Mavericks on Monday, but Waiters was held to 12 as Miami had its 16-game 100-point streak snapped.

For the season, Dragic has performed at a near-All-Star level, averaging a career-best-tying 20.3 points and 6.1 assists in 34.1 minutes per game. He is making a career-best 42.3 percent on 3-pointers, 48.5 percent from the floor overall and 78.8 percent from the foul line.

Those numbers are -- in every case -- better than his career averages and also represent a significant improvement over last year, which was his first full season with Miami.

With Dwyane Wade off to the Chicago Bulls after last season, Dragic, who has a long-term contract, has been set free to be the Heat's Alpha Dog.

Waiters, meanwhile, signed a short-term contract that he can opt out of this summer, which he is expected to do.

The fourth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Waiters has yet to live up the expectations that come with such a selection and is already on his third NBA franchise at age 25.

Given his contract status, he could be on a fourth franchise by the summer, but -- for now at least -- Waiters has flourished in Miami, averaging a career-high-tying 15.9 points.

Waiters also has career highs in assists (4.5), rebounds (3.5) and blocks (0.5), evolving into more of an all-around talent and discarding his reputation as somewhat of a selfish, score-first, pass-rarely player. (He averaged just 2.0 assists last season.)

The 76ers, coming off a 119-108 loss to the reigning Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors on Monday, have improved of late and could give Miami a challenge.

For example, the Sixers harassed Warriors star Steph Curry to 0-for-11 on 3-pointers, the worst shooting night of his career.

But despite the good job on Curry, the Sixers still lost.

"That's the dangerous part of picking a game plan," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "When you take away one thing, something else gets exposed."

Even so, the 76ers are 14-13 this calendar year, a significant improvement to the struggles of the past few years.

On Wednesday, Dragic and Waiters will be matched up with 76ers point guards T.J. McConnell and Sergio Rodriguez and wings Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas.

None of those four 76ers guards averages more than 10 points per game, although McConnell (6.1 assists) and Rodriguez (5.7 assists) have done a good job of setting up teammates.

Still, the 76ers are 2-1 against Miami this season, beating the Heat 101-94 at home on Nov. 24; losing Feb. 4 at the Heat 125-102; and beating Miami at home on Feb. 11 by a 117-109 score.

By that pattern, the Heat should prevail on its home court on Wednesday, especially since the Sixers will again be without star center Joel Embiid (left knee).

In other story lines regarding the game:

Heat backup center Willie Reed (ankle) is questionable after missing the Mavericks game. With Reed out, the Heat went small against Dallas, using forward James Johnson as its backup center.

Sixers power forward Jahlil Okafor has had highs and lows of late. He had a season-high 28 points against the New York Knicks on Saturday and just four points vs. Golden State.
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