The MIAMI (t)H(re)EAT

Story by: Jeremy Taché

Fact: the Miami Heat have won 20 of their last 24 games. Fact: the Miami Heat have the best record in the NBA during that span. Fact: the Miami Heat will make it to the Eastern Conference finals to face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ok, fine. That’s an opinion.

“Jeremy, how can a team that was once 19 games under .500 and wouldn’t even make the playoffs if the season ended today be a legitimate threat in the East?” “Jeremy, aren’t you the same guy that said the Heat should trade every significant piece on their roster?” “Jeremy, have you suffered from any head trauma over the last few days?” These are the questions that come my way when I say that the Heat will get to the Conference finals. The last one I get on a relatively regular basis, but let me make a case for the Heat nonetheless because it is not nearly as farfetched as you might think.

As I said at the top of this article, the Heat have won 20 of their last 24 games. They won 13 in a row, starting on January 17 against the Rockets after starting the season 11-30. Before that winning streak, the Heat were the second worst team in the NBA and were 9.5 games behind the Bulls for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. As I write this piece on Friday, March 10, they sit just a half-game out of the playoffs and only 2.5 games back of the Pacers (who they play on Sunday) for the sixth seed in the East.

So, we can all acknowledge the Heat have had a miraculous run, but it’s more than just luck. It comes down to execution and completely renovating the team’s style of play. When Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson went down, their game changed. Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic amped up their minutes, and the leftover minutes went to Rodney McGruder, Luke Babbit, and Wayne Ellington. This is what has made the difference – all five of those players are effective from the three-point line. I love Richardson and Winslow, and I believe they will both be keys to the Heat’s long-term future, but in today’s NBA, having players that can straight up shoot the ball is crucial.

Since the start of the Heat’s win streak on January 17, Luke Babbitt, Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder and Wayne Ellington are all shooting over 40% from three. Luke Babbitt is actually shooting over 50% during that span, which has moved him into the top 10 in the league for three-point percentage this season. Also, don’t look now, but Goran Dragic is the best three-point shooting point guard in the NBA. Steph, who?

All of this numerical mumbo jumbo is really just to say that the Heat have gone from a team that couldn’t buy a three – they ranked in the bottom five of the league in three-point percentage before this run – to a team that is built around the three-point shot. The Heat have won their last 16 games when they’ve made 10+ threes. They’re shooting 41% from three over their last 24 games, and that’s pretty remarkable when you consider that, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the best three-point percentage over an entire season came from Charlotte in 1996-97 at 42.8% and the Spurs currently lead the league at 39.3% this season. This is no fluke. It is not accidental. 24 games make up nearly 40% of the season at this point.

Since the end of the era with “he who shall not be named,” the Heat have focused more on being strong on the defensive side of the ball. This offensive explosiveness is just a bonus. So, how have the Heat kept up with that defense? Thanks for asking! They’re fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, Hassan Whiteside is fourth in the league in blocks, and they are holding opponents to a league low 23.7 points per game in the fourth quarter. How do you beat a team that shoots over 40% from three and doesn’t let you score in the fourth quarter? You don’t.

The Miami Heat’s transformation this season is basically akin to “Ramen Noodle hair Justin Timberlake” to “Suit & Tie Justin Timberlake.” Seriously. How is that the same person? This is a team that was supposed to be in rebuild mode. They were supposed to tank, and I fully endorsed it. They were supposed to trade Dragic, Waiters, James Johnson, and any other salvageable piece that they had to get as bad as possible and accumulate as many picks as possible. They were supposed to stink.

Whoops.

The Miami Heat culture has brought the most out of a crew of second round picks and castoffs and turned them into a legitimate contender. On January 20th, FiveThirtyEight said the Heat had less than a 1% chance of making the playoff. Today, they have a 68% chance of making the playoffs and they’re one of just ten teams with at least a 1% chance of winning the whole thing.

Look, this season is already a success for the Heat. Goran Dragic has blossomed into a point guard that can lead the franchise, Hassan Whiteside has recorded 43 double-doubles and is leading the league in rebounds per game, Dion Waiters and James Johnson have thrived on their one-year deals and are great fits with the club moving forward, and even though Justice Winslow got hurt, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Willie Reed, Okaro White and Rodney McGruder have taken steps forward for the youth movement. It’s already a success, and reaching the playoffs and eventually the Conference Finals will just be the cherry on top.

Featured image for this post courtesy of FanSided

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