The Miami Heat started the second half of their 2017-2018 season with an impressive 97-79 home victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Heat used a dominant third quarter to overcome a 43-41 halftime deficit en route their their seventh straight win.
Although both Heat head coach Erik Spolestra and point guard Goran Dragic downplayed the winning streak after the game, the team’s play over the last month and a half has set them up to be a player in the Eastern Conference postseason.
Miami’s 24-17 record through 41 games is in stark contrast to their 11-30 record a year ago. Although the Heat have absorbed a number injuries for the second straight season (they posted a league-leading 334 games lost to injury in 2016-2017), they’ve managed to not only stay afloat but to thrive, despite extended absences from Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside.
This no-star approach has made the Heat a very difficult team to defend and game-plan for. Miami features eight players who average more than 10 points-per-game, led by Goran Dragic’s 17 PPG. The team also has five players averaging more than five rebounds-per-game. Entering Sunday, the Heat was No. 8 in the NBA in True Shooting Percentage (55.6 percent) and No. 12 in Effective Field Goal Percentage (52.5 percent). Although they’re only No. 22 in Offensive Rating (103.6), they’re No. 8 in Defensive Rating (104.2).
Miami has managed to win seven straight, and 12 of their last 15. This push has propelled them up the Eastern Conference standings, where they currently sit as the No. 4 seed, one game behind the reeling Cleveland Cavaliers. At 25-17, the Heat have a 0.5 game lead over the Washington Wizards atop the Atlantic Division.
While Goran Dragic has been Miami’s best and most consistent player this season, the recent winning streak and generally improved play since December 1st has coincided with the emergence of Josh Richardson and the development of rookie Bam Adebayo. The Heat were 10-11 before December 1st, and are 15-6 since, including wins at Boston and at Toronto.
Since December 1st, Richardson is averaging 16.8 points-per-game, 3.7 rebounds-per-game, 2.7 assists-per-game and 1.1 steals-per-game. Rookie Bam Adebayo filled the void left by Justise Winslow’s injury and has averaged 8.1 points-per-game and 6.1 rebounds-per-game in 23.3 minutes-per-game over his last 10. Adebayo has forced Spolestra’s hand regarding rotations, and it will be interesting to see how Spo distributes Winslow’s minutes, who had been primarily playing the 4-spot prior to his injury.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, it will be interesting to see if Pat Riley elects to keep this team intact or if he tries to make a major move. Riley is asset-strapped at the moment, considering the team can’t trade a 1st-round pick until 2023 and doesn’t own a second-round selection until 2022. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Miami’s only conceivable trade package might have to be built around Whiteside and Winslow.
The extraordinary stretch that began at the halfway point last season has continued into this one. With today’s victory, the Heat are now 55-28 over their last 83 games. Coach Spo continues to have them as among the best prepared teams in the league. They continue to play hard, play defense, drive-and-kick, and win, despite the shuffling nature of the lineup and rotation. They embody the next-man-up cliche more than any team I’ve ever seen, and, should the Heat win on Monday at Chicago, and should Cleveland lose versus the Warriors, Miami, incredibly, will be tied for the No. 3 seed in the East.