The Miami Heat are perhaps the biggest surprise in the NBA this year. The Heat are certainly the hottest team.
Prior to the season, Miami were predicted to finish out of the playoffs by most prognostications with the most optimistic predictions had them fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
The Heat, who made the playoffs for the seventh in eight seasons last year, went into the season thinking about the future. This past offseason, the Heat lost Dwyane Wade in free agency and expected Chris Bosh to either retire or miss the entire season. Bosh has been out all year with blood clots, having last played on February 9, 2016, though he has not ruled out a return to the NBA, according to USA Today Sports. The Heat were also rumored to be shopping Goran Dragic and, for that matter, any other player who could net them prospects at the trade deadline.
Miami started the season losing eight of its first 10 games and were 10-24 at the end of the 2016 portion of the season. The Heat have also dealt with several injuries. Guard Josh Richardson missed the first five games of the season and has missed 28 games overall. Small forward Justise Winslow is out for the remainder of the year after appearing in just 18 games, while Josh McRoberts (foot), who has appeared in 22 games, has missed the last 40 contests. Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington have missed at least 19 games this season.
Miami has other issues as well. The Heat have had problems scoring this year, averaging 102.9 points a game, which ranks 23rd in the league. The biggest problem for the Heat on the offensive end is that while they have players who can score, they don’t have a true go-to scorer. Waiters is perhaps the closest person on the team, but he is too inconsistent. The Heat rank 16th in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 22nd in shooting efficiency, per Team Rankings.
Despite the issues, the Heat have been one of the best in the NBA since the calendar turned to 2017. In fact, Miami is a league best 22-6 since January 17. The Heat are coming off a 115-104 home loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on March 19. Damian Lillard exploded for 49 points on 14-of-21 shooting, including 9-of-12 from beyond the arc, and the Blazers shot 50 percent from the field as well as the three-point line. Miami was without Waiters due to a sprained left ankle.
Miami has been very good on the defensive end all season. The Heat rank fifth in scoring defense and sixth in defensive efficiency. The Heat are holding opponents to just a tad over 100 points a game and 44.8 percent shooting from the field since the All-Star break. They have been defending the three-point line in the second half of the season.
But the main reason for the Heat turning around its season has been the play of Waiters, Hassan Whiteside, and their bench overall.
Waiters has scored in double figures in 21 of the 24 games, including 13 games of 20-plus points, he has appeared in during the recent stretch. Miami is 11-2 in games he has scored at least 20 points and 7-17 without him in the lineup for the season. Overall, Waiters is averaging 15.8 points a game to go along with 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds, both of which are career highs. The 25-year-old shooting guard is also shooting a career-best 39.5 percent from beyond the arc as he is making 1.8 three-pointers a contest.
Whiteside has been very consistent. The seven-footer has a career-high 48 double-doubles and is averaging 16.7 points along with 14.5 boards a game — both personal bests. He is not as efficient as he has been in the past, but some of that has to do with the evolution of his game offensively. Whiteside is shooting 56.1 percent from the field on the season.
Miami’s bench has been fantastic the latter part of the season. The Heat’s reserves are currently playing their best ball of the season. The Heat are getting 48.1 points, 18.1 rebounds, and 11.1 assists from their bench, which is rated as the fourth best in the NBA by Hoop Stats in March. Their reserves are outscoring their opponent’s bench by a whopping 22 points this month. James Johnson and Tyler Johnson are the top players off the bench.
Miami (34-36) is currently tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with both teams having 12 games remaining. Miami is also a half-game behind seventh-place Milwaukee (34-35) and one-and-a-half games behind sixth place Indiana (35-34).
The Heat, who are 15-2 in their last 17 American Airlines Arena, have six more home games remaining where they are 20-15 on the season. The Heat also play six teams with losing records, including the Pistons. However, their last four games are against teams battling for the top-four spots in the Eastern Conference — two games vs. Washington, one at Toronto, and one at home against Cleveland.
The Heat are playing very well but they do have a difficult schedule remaining. The next two weeks will tell a lot about the Heat’s playoff chances. Miami hosts Phoenix on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday. They start a three-game road trip on Sunday with stops in Boston, Detroit, and New York. Team Rankings gives the Heat a 50.6 percent chance of making the playoffs.
[Featured Image by Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Image]