The most remarkably surprising story in the NBA kept rolling on Wednesday night. The Miami Heat went into the BMO Harris Bradley Center, raced out to a 17-2 lead over Jason Kidd’s Milwaukee Bucks and never trailed, leading by as many as 20 points and cruising to a 106-88 win.
Center Hassan Whiteside led five Miami players in double figures with 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting and 16 rebounds in 34 minutes of work, repeatedly bullying the Bucks’ big men inside on his way to the rim:
On its own, carving up a defense-deficient, sub-.500 Bucks squad that had just welcomed back key cog Khris Middleton and lost Jabari Parker to a scary-looking knee injury in the third quarter doesn’t seem like too much to celebrate. In the broader context, though, the win continued Miami’s stunning recent surge … and earning Erik Spoelstra’s squad a weird piece of NBA history.
The Heat have now won 12 games in a row, which is the longest active winning streak in the NBA and which ties the Golden State Warriors’ November run for the longest unbeaten stretch in the league this season. And yet, after their woeful start to the season, they are still just 23-30, which means their 12-game run is now the longest winning streak ever by a team that’s still under .500:
Highlights from the streak! pic.twitter.com/0jWkekIiia
— NBA (@NBA) February 9, 2017
The 1996-97 Phoenix Suns won 11 in a row between March 20, 1997, and April 10, 1997, to improve from 27-39 to 38-39. They’d never actually finish the job, losing their next game to the Los Angeles Lakers and finishing the season at 40-42.
Those Suns did make the playoffs, though, taking the second-seeded Seattle SuperSonics to five games in the opening round. A month ago, with the Heat sitting at 11-30, having just lost 10 of 11 and adding sophomore forward Justise Winslow to an injury report that already featured several expected key contributors, headlined by hoped-for superstar Chris Bosh, it seemed impossible to imagine them making a similar postseason push. Now, though?
After Wednesday’s win, they’re just two games out of the eighth seed in the East and only 3 1/2 games beneath the No. 7 spot, and according to one analysis, they’ve got the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the conference the rest of the way. The Heat close out their pre-All-Star schedule against:
• The 9-44 Brooklyn Nets, the NBA’s worst team;
• The Philadelphia 76ers, who have gotten mighty frosty since their own joyous jolt to relevance and who might still be without Joel Embiid, whose timetable for return from a left knee contusion remains unclear;
• The Orlando Magic, who remain frustratingly awkward and not very good; and
I mean, you wouldn’t bet on Miami entering the All-Star break on a 16-game winning streak. (Or, at least, I wouldn’t. I like having the money that I have.) Given that slate of opposition, though, and how well Miami has played over the past few weeks, it’s not the craziest thought in the world to entertain … and that, in and of itself, is crazy.
This was absolutely not what team president Pat Riley had in mind. Recall, if you will, his comments on Miami radio in late December, with the Heat wracked by injury and scuffling at 9-20:
You go back and you look at it, we’re in a rebuild with young players that we’re familiar with and we have five or six guys that we really like. They will form a nucleus, two or three them. […] we love our young core. And what we have is flexibility. And you need flexibility in this league to be able to move quickly. You can’t get paralyzed by the cap or not being able to make room and being able to trade players. I think the No. 1 asset that we have right now is our flexibility moving forward. We have a first round pick this year. So we’re dealing with it.
We’re dealing with that word that you hate to use – that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild quick. I’m not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami. We have great, great fans. They’re frustrated. They’ve been used to something great over the last 10 years and so right now we’re taking a hit. I think we can turn this thing around. As I said, if five of those [close] losses were turned into wins we could be in the playoffs right now. But they didn’t. You can use that word rebuild. But we’re going to do it fast.
One man’s “rebuild” is another man’s “tank.” After Riley said what he said, and after Winslow went down, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the story of the remainder of the 2016-17 season would be killing time until we reached the end of it, with Miami doing what it could to shed whichever players didn’t fit into that “young core” — like guards Dragic and Dion Waiters — in search of additional cap flexibility and draft assets. Instead, Spoelstra’s team has done a complete 180, ratcheted up its defense from middling (105 points allowed per 100 possessions through 41 games, 13th out of 30 NBA teams) to monstrous (100-per-100, best in the NBA during the streak) and pairing that lockdown D with a suddenly explosive attack.
As Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney noted, injuries in the frontcourt and a roster populated by cast-off wings who can play up a spot in the lineups (Waiters, James Johnson, rookies Rodney McGruder and Okaro White) have prompted Spoelstra to play small-ball more frequently. That has helped helped goose Miami’s tempo — the Heat averaged 97.06 possessions per 48 minutes through 41 games, the ninth-slowest pace in the league at the midway point, and are up to 98.77-per-48 during the streak — and shooting. The Heat are taking a higher share of their shots from beyond the arc during the streak and generating a higher percentage of their points from distance, making 11.6 triples a night (up three per game over the first half of the year) and shooting a positively Warriors-y 42.8 percent from deep as a team.
One notable number nestled within that shooting surge: it has included a sharp increase in the amount of offense Miami generates through unassisted 3s, which accounted for just 7.9 percent of the Heat’s points through 41 games, but a comparatively whopping 16.5 percent over the last 11. Some of that has owed to the freedom with which lead playmakers Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters have been pulling up and firing off the bounce.
The “7-Eleven” backcourt has been shooting the lights out — 22.9 points in 34.2 minutes per game for Dragic during the streak, shooting 56.3 percent from both the field and 3-point range; 20.6 points in 32.3 minutes per game for Waiters on 49.7 percent and 50 percent marks, respectively — while ably carrying the playmaking load, combining to average 11.6 assists against 5.5 turnovers. They’re working well on and off the ball together, taking advantage of their opportunities to attack and get downhill when they’re entrusted with running the offense themselves with the other on the bench, and making more than enough shots to keep the offense afloat.
Dragic and Waiters keep knifing their way to the rim and cashing in from long distance. Whiteside controls the rim on both ends. Role players like White, McGruder, Johnson (11.8 points, five rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.5 combined block and steals in a great run as a Swiss Army knife two-way playmaker), veteran shooters Wayne Ellington and Luke Babbitt, and energetic shot-blocker Willie Reed all keep doing their jobs.
Add it all up, and despite a roster light on bankable big-name scoring threats, the Heat have averaged 110.8 points per 100 possessions during their winning streak, which would rank No. 4 in the NBA in offensive efficiency over the course of the whole season. Left for dead, the Heat somehow turned into the Rockets; apparently, Dion Waiters plus Goran Dragic equals James Harden, and that’s plenty good enough to get you back into the playoff race.
In the grand scheme of things, this might not be a good thing. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller notes, the difference between vying for the worst record in the league and competing for the eighth seed and an opening-round sacrifice at the altar of LeBron James could be the difference between landing one of the top three picks in the expected-to-be-loaded 2017 NBA draft or having to fight harder and get luckier to nail a pick in the middle of the first round. With only Whiteside, Dragic, Winslow, McGruder and Tyler Johnson under team control through the next three seasons, you’d suspect Riley might prefer improved chances at landing Miami’s next potential transformational star, the true heir apparent to Dwyane Wade, to making a fun but ultimately fruitless postseason push propelled by the brash shooting guard who believes he’s the one in line for that throne.
At this point, though, Riley can do little but sit back and marvel at the job Spoelstra’s done with getting a roster of misfit toys locked in on both ends enough to take advantage of what the schedule has given them — eight home games during the streak, seven games against fellow sub-.500 teams, the Rockets during a brief downturn in their killer season, the Warriors at the end of a road trip, the Bulls in the middle of imploding, etc. — and change the conversation in South Florida.
“We’re sharing the ball; everyone knows what we’re doing,” Dragic said after Monday’s win, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald “It’s fun. We can do multiple stuff — play slow, play fast. Every night, someone else has a huge game.”
After one more huge game in Milwaukee, the Heat stand by themselves in an obscure spot in the NBA record books, offering another lasting example that just when you think you know what’s going to happen, this game and this league can turn everything on its head. (Especially when Dion Waiters is involved.)
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