As it stands, the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets have two of the three best records in the NBA right now. This season, only one team has beaten them both in the same week. It’s the same team that currently holds the longest active win streak in the NBA. It’s also the same team that was 11-30 less than three weeks ago. That team, somehow, is the Miami Heat.
That’s right, they may be 12th in the Eastern Conference standings, but right now, the Heat are the hottest team in the NBA. Against all odds, Miami has won eight games in a row, which matches their best win streak since February of 2014. Just before the eight straight wins, they had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, which is why the sudden surge is even more surprising.
The Heat, however, don’t seem surprised by their recent wave of success. Apparently, they’ve known for a while that they have what it takes to win games; they just weren’t getting the actual wins to prove it:
“We’re not a bad team,” Hassan Whiteside told the Miami Herald last week. “Even (Warriors head coach) Steve Kerr was saying that we’re better than our record. Even when they (the Warriors) beat us (in the first of their two matchups), I always said, ‘We’re better than our record.’ We’re building great habits. We had so many tough games where we built the mental toughness for it.”
Be that as it may, it’s still unusual to witness such a drastic turnaround for a team that was struggling so mightily just a few short weeks ago. Stranger still, they haven’t changed the way they practice, or their style on the court, but they seem to have undergone a full 180.
So how did a team that had lost 30 of its first 41 games find a way to right the ship and rattle off eight straight wins? How does a ragtag crew of misfits, role players and journeymen find themselves on the winning end of a shootout with the mighty Warriors?
Heat forward James Johnson believes he has the answer to those burning questions:
“It’s this organization,” Johnson said after the team’s victory over the Detroit Pistons. “We breed champions around here and champion mentality on and off the court. We knew what we were doing when we were losing and we knew what we had to do better. Instead of complaining or making excuses about it, we just got it done in practice.”
Johnson, who has played for six different teams over his eight-year career, has clearly bought into the all-business, yet familial culture that Pat Riley has created down in Miami. In fact, it seems to be doing wonders for him, because he’s having the best season of his career thus far.
Perhaps that’s why, despite the team’s early struggles, Johnson says he never wants to leave Miami:
“It would be a dream come true to stay here,” Johnson said in December, when asked if he’d finally found his NBA home.
While culture is key, it isn’t the only reason the Heat are riding high right now. Their recent success can be attributed to a number of factors, with perhaps the largest factor being the fact that the team is finally getting healthy. Injuries have been a major thorn in the Heat’s side in 2016-17. In fact, no team has had its players miss more time due to injury. For that reason, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has been forced to use 18 different starting lineups so far this season.
“We’re competitors. We don’t want any excuses,” said Johnson last month in regards to all the injuries.
While they may not be making excuses, it’s understandable that they haven’t exactly been dominant, given what they’ve gone through. Miami has already lost Justise Winslow for the season to a torn labrum. Josh McRoberts, who is dealing with a serious foot injury, may also miss the rest of the year. Meanwhile, guys like Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson and Dion Waiters have all missed more than 15 games because of injuries this year. Even Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Whiteside have missed a few games each due to various ailments.
The point is, it’s hard enough for a brand new team with a slew of fresh faces to find immediate success in the NBA. Throw in an excessive pileup of injuries and an ever-changing lineup, and success becomes almost impossible to attain.
Having said that, in nearly all of the Heat’s 30 losses this season, they’ve remained highly competitive, seemingly until the final buzzer. For instance, one would think a team with the sixth lowest winning percentage in the NBA has suffered its fair share of blowout losses, when in reality — Miami’s average point differential this year is only -2.5. It’s also worth noting that, since the season began, there have been only three games in which the Heat have lost by 15 points or more.
“We know we’re in every game,” said (James) Johnson, back in early January. “We’re getting a lot of experience in all these close games, clutch games. I feel like once we start putting it together, we’re going to get over that hump and start winning.”
Evidently, Johnson’s assessment was on point. All that close-game experience seems to have helped the Heat tremendously, because they’ve been closing out games at an expert level lately.
Another factor that’s helping the Heat right now is their undeniable chemistry. Adversity can either tear a team apart, or bring them closer together, and the latter seems to be the case for the Heat.
“I think guys are finally healthy and we’re building that chemistry and that trust is there, and guys are being held accountable,” Waiters said recently.
Despite all the early-season frustrations, this team really is becoming closer as they go along. Some teams implode on themselves when things aren’t going their way. As a result, in-fighting occurs. Not with this Heat team, though. It’s clear that, if anything, their bond has only become stronger:
“We started to grow closer on that road trip,” Spoelstra said of the team’s 1-5 road trip that had preceded their win streak.
Even before the streak, though, it was clear the lengths these guys were willing to go for each other:
“We’re working with what we’ve got right now,” Whiteside told reporters back in early December. “I’ll go to war with these guys any day. Guys are giving their all right now.”
James Johnson echoed those exact sentiments a month later, just before Miami’s win streak began:
“I’ll go to go to war with these guys any day,” Johnson said. “We go hard, we play hard.”
The Heat are slowly learning to rely on each other more and more as the season goes on. That becomes evident when you look at the way the scoring responsibilities are divvied up between each player. Currently, the Heat lead the league in players who average double-digit scoring. While Dragic leads the way with 19.7 points per game, Whiteside is not far behind with 16.6 points per game. Then comes Waiters (15.3), Tyler Johnson (13.9), James Johnson (11.5), Ellington (11.3) and Richardson (11.2).
Winslow was also averaging double-digit points per game (10.9) before he went down. So, the Heat have, by far, the most evenly distributed offense in the league. It certainly helps to know there are at least half a dozen guys who can step up when others are struggling. Conversely, Miami is also playing great team defense. They’re holding opponents to 102.1 points per game, good for seventh best in the NBA.
While Heat players are chipping in all over, Dragic and (more recently) Waiters are undoubtedly the engines that make this team go. Both guards are playing the best basketball of their careers. While Dragic has sustained career-best numbers all season long, Waiters has only recently hit his stride. He’s done so in a major way, too, averaging 22.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists over his last five games. That’s a major improvement over his 15.3 points per game average for the season. Quite simply, “D-Wait” has caught fire and the league is starting to notice.
Subsequently, Waiters won the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week last week. The last Heat player to win that award was Dwyane Wade, one year earlier, almost to the day:
“We don’t take that kind of news for granted, even in a year like this,” Spoelstra said on Monday. “We want our players to get better. We want them to push and be open-minded, to become something different. And he’s really been working at it, working on trying to be more efficient, working on how to make more winning plays, learning how to finish better at the rim, learning how to ultimately impact winning better.”
All in all, things are finally coming together for the Heat. They’re still playing hard, night in and night out, except now they’re actually coming out of games on top. It remains to be seen whether they can keep up their current level of momentum, but they sure have a good chance to do so. Six of their next seven games are against teams with sub .500 records.
It’s no secret the Heat have been dealt some bad hands these last two or three years. But still, as a whole, they’ve managed to maintain that championship mindset that has elevated the franchise to great heights over the last several years. That “all-or-nothing” mentality and that “win-at-all-costs” attitude seem to be the two constants for the Heat, regardless of the names on the roster.