A few years ago, people would have you believe that the Miami Heat could have anyone coaching the trio of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to their two NBA championships.
Those voices are eerily silent now, wonder why that would be?
Maybe because Erik Spoelstra has knitted together a group of rag tag players that have rebounded back from an 11-30 start to the season to being on the brink of the Eastern Conference playoffs. If they finish above .500, they will be the first team to recover from a 19-game deficit to be above that average at the end of the season.
It started with the end of an era, as Dwayne Wade decided to say farewell to the south coast and returned home. Combined with the admission that Bosh would likely never play the game due to reoccurring blood clots, Miami looked to be resetting to a rebuild of their roster.
They started by making sure their best prospect didn’t skip town. Hassan Whiteside was tied down to a big deal, anchoring the team alongside the likes of Goran Dragic and youngsters like Justice Winslow.
As previously mentioned, they floundered around early on. What did come out of every defeat, from every coach and broadcasting team, was despite their record the Heat would put in maximum effort for the entire game and never allow anyone an easy night.
Seemingly out of the playoff run by the turn of the year, they all of a sudden clicked into place. The defensive principles that the coach reminded them every night, the system to get more threes into their game and adding that to the effort they were already showing mixed into a potent cocktail.
From January 17th, they rattled off 13 straight victories that included wins against the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors. Including that run, Miami have gone 24-6 which has seen them go a game clear in the eighth spot in the playoffs and they have yet to lose two games back-to-back.
One factor in that has been their defence, which has been stellar all season. They rank 5th in the league in points allowed, they lead the league in three-pointers made in a game against them and every single night, just watching them rush round the court like a pack of Jack Russell’s, you know they play hard on that end of the floor.
What has changed in recent times is their offensive output, with their points per game average going up by a whopping 10 points per game for the months of February and March. The offence is finally clicking, players are believing in their ability and that confidence is flowing throughout the line-up.
Whiteside was a beast all year and is still currently leading the league in rebounds while sitting third in blocks. Dragic is a great point guard in a league filled with them, but those two alone were never going to be enough to push the Heat into the postseason.
Their push starts with Dion Waiters, the odd man out for many years has finally come out of the shadows. Averaging 15.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, all career highs and he isn’t afraid to take that big game shot, hitting huge game-winning threes against the Charlotte Hornets and the Cleveland Cavaliers, his old team.
No wonder he feels he has that Philly Cheese swag.
Add to that the Johnson brothers, Tyler and James, who bring such a burst of the bench. The former is averaging 13.8 points per game, justifying his expensive extension in the summer, while the latter is not far behind on 12.3 ppg.
Both are averaging over four boards and three assists per game and bring so much energy in the second quarters. Neither has started a game all season but when they are on the court, they allow Miami to switch gears but lose none of the intensity.
That’s saying nothing of other role players like Wayne Ellington, who’s been dynamite from three-point range in recent weeks, or Rodney McGruder, who doesn’t fill the box score but brings great defence every night. Willie Reed does plenty in his short minutes to give Whiteside a breather, Josh Richardson is growing into a fine player and they all add something to this time.
When you also think they’ve missed Justice Winslow in that stretch, especially just as he was ascending into the line-up, and the Heat finally have direction. Unlike so many other mid-card teams in the NBA, they have an identity, they have the right kind of players and they have a foundation they can hopefully pull an interesting rebuild into quickly.
Those that are fighting for that first seed are praying that the Heat either finish seventh or fade away. Even if a series goes 4-0, all of those teams know it will be an incredibly hard-fought battle to sweep a team that brings everything night in and night out.
While Mike D’Antoni has done wonders for the offensive juggernaut that is the Rockets but Spoelstra’s efforts, should the Heat get to the post-season, are beyond miraculous. They aren’t just a team, they are a culture and after their boom years of buying big, they now have a network from which they can structure another championship run.