A Minor Miracle Has Miami In The Playoff Hunt

Thursday February 2nd, 2017

Improbable doesn’t quite cover the monumental roll of the Miami Heat. Just weeks ago, Miami was 11–30, losing with such frequency—and in such sobering streaks—that their season held little consequence. Trade rumor vultures began scouring the Heat roster for spare parts. Those making early projections for the lottery safely assumed that Miami would be in play for a high draft pick. An overmatched team had been undercut further by injury. Their seemed to be a losing lot.

Then came a surprising win against the Rockets, a comeback against the Mavericks, a 16-point victory over the Bucks, and a buzzer-beating dismissal of the Warriors. Miami hadn’t won more than two consecutive games all season. Without warning, their streak stretched—to six after beating the Bulls, to seven after dismissing the Pistons, and to nine, ultimately, with their handling of the Hawks on Wednesday. Those same Heat, who weeks ago could have been tabulating their lottery odds, are now just three games back of the eighth-seeded Hornets. 

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There’s room to question what course would best serve the Heat as an institution—especially with two future first-round picks in outstanding debt. This ongoing streak does little to actually improve Miami in the long term. But, politely, those questioning should can it. There are moments in every season that transcend big-picture vision. Dion Waiters rallying a team of outcasts to nine consecutive wins (and counting!) qualifies as one of them.

Recall that this team was understaffed with scorers to begin with. The veteran ranks of last year’s Heat—a second-round playoff team—were thinned when Dwyane Wade left in resentment, Luol Deng hit the jackpot, and Joe Johnson bolted for a better opportunity. Chris Bosh still has not been cleared to play basketball. The exodus largely left Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside to their own devices, supported by low-cost signings from a picked-over free agent pool. For months that group struggled as expected, its commendable defense outweighed by a lack of shot creation and range shooting. Miami’s roster had grown heavy with role players.

Role players, though, happen to be a Heat specialty. Few teams have the same grasp of scouting, and none have a better track record in recent seasons when it comes to identifying NBA talent on the fringes. Hassan Whiteside was a fluke success beyond even the franchise’s most optimistic expectations. But the undrafted Tyler Johnson? Josh Richardson, who went No. 40 overall in the 2015 draft? Those were rotation pieces plucked from thin air. 

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So when Justise Winslow joined Bosh, Richardson, and Josh McRoberts on Miami’s inactive list, it should have come as little surprise that two new unheralded members of the Heat would take on needed rotation roles. Rodney McGruder and Okaro White (whom the Heat signed by way of an injury exception roster spot) won’t change your world as an NBA franchise. But both have delivered for a team that needed something—anything—from its deepest ranks. Injuries have left Miami little choice but to play small at all times. Respectable defense, helpful length, and a little three-point shooting from the Heat’s stopgap wings has gone a long way.

Realistically, Miami’s starters won’t keep pace with their counterparts across the court. There just isn’t the firepower to score over first-unit defensive synergy. So in most every game, the Heat make up points with the amalgamated lineups that unleash Waiters and Dragic individually. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra usually begins his rotation early, pulling Dragic around the midway point of the first quarter. Waiters takes over, albeit with dramatically different results than the familiar NBA viewer might be used to. At the moment, Waiters is living in a heat-check world. His game-winners fall. His step-backs are smooth. His on-court habits have been relatively tolerable, though let’s not confuse this for a transformation of habits. Waiters is going nuts (averaging 21.6 points, 4.6 assists, and 4.7 rebounds over these last nine games) and he’s largely doing it on his terms. 

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That, combined with Dragic playing his best basketball in years, has elevated the Heat offense to sufficiency. This has been a good defensive team all season and an especially stout one of late. Miami has 48 minutes of rim protection covered between Hassan Whiteside and Willie Reed (one of the NBA’s better-kept secrets), which allows Miami to chase shooters inside and hound them with length. The Heat grind out possessions whether they’re winning or losing, which for Spoelstra must make the winning that much sweeter. 

And finally the offense has perked up to validate that effort. Dragic runs in to initiate the offense whenever he can (even off opponent’s makes), giving even stale situations some punch. He’s finding his lanes comfortably. Once the game opens up to him, a full-speed Dragic is a slippery cover—a flurry of head fakes and spins and wrong-footed jumps. His final move never seems to come quite when or where opponents expect, which is just what Dragic’s team needs when light on secondary creation. Nothing combats a pre-rotated defense like the element of surprise.

James Johnson has made for a fun intermediary—the kind of playmaking forward that Dragic, Waiters, and Whiteside can work off of to maximize their scoring chances. There’s a balance here that, for the moment, works kind of brilliantly. That picture will inevitably change when Dragic and Waiters aren’t draining half of their threes, but you can’t just wave away the grounds for nine consecutive wins. This is a hot streak, to be sure, but it’s a hot streak hitting a team that was already hovering around top-10 defensive standing. The defense has been even more energetic of late, though the real margin comes from scoring like a competitive NBA team. 

Miami is a team that, if nothing else, knows how to get by. Spoelstra is a master of making ends meet. The Heat’s scouting pipeline has kept the roster reasonably well-stocked, in spite of everything. But for all of this to click at this level requires some touch of magic—a swell of performance and spirit that can’t be fully explained. Nine straight wins is an achievement. Nine straight wins for a sub-.500 team is a minor miracle. And it all leads to this: The Heat, inconceivably and perhaps imprudently, are back in the playoff hunt. 

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