With a motivated Hassan Whiteside performing at his best, the Miami Heat opened an advantageous stretch in their schedule with a much-needed victory.
The Heat will try to give themselves another boost in two hotly contested races by topping the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
Whiteside matched a career high with 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting, pulled down 12 rebounds and blocked five shots in a 108-97 victory against Orlando on Friday. Miami's super sub is averaging 18.0 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 60.5 percent in his last 18 games.
"I think about the days I sat out of the league and everybody said I couldn't do this, I couldn't play here," he said. "It was just a journey just to get here."
The win helped keep the Heat (42-30) within one game of Atlanta for the Southeast Division lead and one-half game back of Boston for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Miami is also one-half game ahead of Charlotte in both races.
Miami appears to have a good chance to make a push with three more matchups against teams well out of playoff contention. The Heat visit the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento later this week as part of a three-game Western trip.
Brooklyn, though, has beaten a pair of playoff-contending teams in its last two games, including East-leading Cleveland 104-95 on Thursday. The Nets then rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 120-110 victory against Indiana on Saturday.
"I think we have made a lot of strides the past couple of weeks," said center Brook Lopez, who is averaging 24.7 points in his last three games. "We've got guys out here that want to work, want to play. They realize the chance we have these last two weeks to get better and make our team better."
Brooklyn (21-51) has lost five straight on the road and dropped two of three overall against the Heat this season. The Nets, however, ended a seven-game skid against Miami - including the playoffs - with a 111-105 victory in Florida on Dec. 28.
Wayne Ellington matched a career high with seven 3-pointers while scoring 26 points, and Lopez also provided 26 in Brooklyn's end to a five-game losing streak in South Beach, including the postseason.
The Heat have won eight of 10 at home heading into this matchup.
"No game is guaranteed. We know we have to come out here and still play Miami Heat basketball," Whiteside said. "We're not looking at the team we're facing. We're playing by our standard."
Whiteside has totaled 38 points on 14-of-20 shooting in two games against the Nets this season. He sat out a 102-98 victory in Brooklyn on Jan. 26 because of a strained left hip.
Dwyane Wade is averaging 26.3 points while connecting at 62.0 percent in this season's series, his highest scoring mark and best shooting accuracy versus any East opponent.