Hassan Whiteside might have just saved the Heat's season, and ended the Pistons'

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For the last week, Hassan Whiteside has been playing with 13 stitches between the middle and ring fingers on his right hand, after suffering a cut late in a win over the Phoenix Suns. He has continued to suit up and produce, even with his shooting hand all bandaged up to protect the injured mitt, but it hurts, and it’s awkward, and he hasn’t felt quite like himself.

So, with a game against the Detroit Pistons and perhaps the Miami Heat’s season on the line on Tuesday night, the high-priced big man did what he needed to do.

He used the other one.

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After forcing a jump ball and a turnover with 14 seconds left, the Heat took possession trailing Detroit by one. Miami reserve James Johnson attacked the Pistons’ Tobias Harris off the dribble, rising for a right elbow jumper that clanged off the iron and bounced directly in front of Detroit center Andre Drummond, the NBA’s second-leading rebounder. But the relentless Heat just kept coming, with Whiteside — the league’s No. 1 rebounder — reaching over Drummond’s head to tap the ball away and keep it alive.

Heat point guard Goran Dragic, all 6-foot-3 of him, got in the middle of seven dudes, came away with the loose ball, wrestled it away from Harris, and flung a shot up toward the basket. It banked off the backboard and off the rim, once again caroming right in front of Drummond … and once again, Drummond failed to secure the rebound, watching it go over his head and Whiteside reached up to tap it back with his left hand.

The replay officials confirmed that the ball left Whiteside’s hand before the clock hit triple-zeroes and fell through the net with no time left on the clock, giving the Heat a thrilling 97-96 win that sent the Miami bench into hysterics …

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… and left Whiteside in awe of his own handiwork …

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… and bolstered Miami’s hopes of playing postseason basketball by dealing another crushing blow to Stan Van Gundy’s nose-diving Pistons, in a fashion that perfectly fit Erik Spoelstra’s club and its glamour-free grind of a climb out of an 11-30 early-season hole:

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Whiteside finished with 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting with nine rebounds, one assist and one block in 30 minutes.

“It was a split second,” Whiteside said after the game, according to George Richards of the Miami Herald. “I didn’t know the time, I just knew we needed the win. We’re mentally tough, have been in so many close battles like this … we didn’t put our heads down, we kept grinding.”

Dragic led the way with 28 points on 9-for-16 shooting and a 9-for-13 mark at the charity stripe to go with four rebounds, four assists and one block, while versatile backup forward Johnson chipped in 16 points, six rebounds, two assists and one soul-stealing posterization of Detroit forward Marcus Morris:

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Miami snapped a two-game skid to improve to 36-38, and now holds a one-game lead over the Chicago Bulls for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with eight games to go. Detroit, on the other hand, continued its late-season plunge with a fifth straight loss to fall to 34-41, dropping a game that Van Gundy had made it clear he believed his team needed desperately to have any hope of making the playoffs.

“This really is it tonight, there’s no question about it, for us,” he said before the game, according to Aaron McMann of MLive.com. “This is pretty much a must-win. You know me, until it’s elimination time, I’m not one to call things a must-win. But this is as close to a must-win as I’ve probably had in the regular season.”

After falling behind by as many as 12 midway through the third quarter, the Pistons finally began to show that sense of urgency in the fourth, getting back into the game early in the frame behind a solid stretch from the likes of Harris and Aron Baynes. They’d take a four-point lead in the final minute thanks to a big 3-pointer by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a pull-up 18-footer by point guard Ish Smith, elevated to the starting lineup as Reggie Jackson was once again shelved due to knee woes.

But despite taking a four-point edge into the final half-minute, Detroit couldn’t close it out. Pistons wing Stanley Johnson got called for a technical foul for stepping on the sideline while guarding an inbounds pass after the Heat timeout that followed Smith’s jumper, letting Dragic go to the line for a free throw that cut the deficit to three. After a Dragic leaner over the smaller Smith on the ensuing Miami trip got it down to one, the Heat were able to spring a trap on Stanley Johnson near half-court to force a jump ball, which James Johnson won to set up the final possession that sunk the Pistons.

Detroit now sits 2 1/2 games behind the No. 8 Heat with seven games remaining, and the Pistons just blew their chance to take the head-to-head tiebreaker against Miami. Instead, Miami will take the tiebreaker, by virtue of a superior Eastern Conference record.

On top of that, the Pistons’ upcoming slate includes a much-better-recently-than-you’d-think Brooklyn Nets team that just knocked Detroit off last week, before a trip to the red-hot Milwaukee Bucks, a visit from the red-hot Toronto Raptors, and road trips to Western Conference playoff squads in Houston and Memphis, before finishing up against a very good Washington Wizards team and an Orlando Magic squad that, despite being one of the NBA’s worst teams, just drilled the Pistons by 28. So, yeah: you can see why Stan figured his guys needed this one.

But they didn’t get it, despite crawling out of a 12-point hole to lead by four with 30 seconds left, and that’s especially brutal. Such is life, though, when you struggle to consistently get stops and string together buckets, as the Pistons have all year, and when you can’t keep the other guys off the glass, as they couldn’t in Tuesday’s pivotal closing seconds.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!