Heat Check: Miami is Peaking At the Right Time
The Miami Heat have faced much adversity throughout the 2015-2016 season, but have managed to get through all of it thus far. The Heat started off the season extremely strong with a 21-13 record, but inexplicably fell apart in the following few weeks. They lost eight out of their next ten games and ultimately saw themselves sitting at 23-21, which put them as the dreaded 8th seed in the Eastern Conference.
Since then, they have lost sharpshooting Tyler Johnson, backup point guard Beno Udrih and, barring a miraculous recovery, Chris Bosh for the season. What’s surprising to Heat fans, along with the rest of the NBA, is that they have won 10 of their past 15 games. Three of these five losses came against Western Conference powerhouses: Golden State, San Antonio, and Los Angeles (Clippers). Hopefully you could’ve figure out that the powerhouse in Los Angeles is no longer the Lakers, but I just had to clarify.
How is Miami Soaring Without Bosh?
Everyone knows how important Chris Bosh has been to the Heat over the past 5+ seasons. With the news of his reoccurring blood clot coming right before the trade deadline, everyone thought Pat Riley was going to make a bold move to keep the Heat in title contention. To the dismay of Heat fans and critics across the NBA, no big deal ended up materializing and Riley stayed content with his current roster.
Somehow, without their star player, the Heat have gone 4-2 since the All-Star break. One of their losses came against Boston, who is currently 10 games above .500 and is the 3rd seed in the East. Their other loss came in a highly contested battle with the Golden State Warriors, arguably the best team in NBA history. Even though there is no such thing as a “good loss,” the Heat could’ve easily been victorious in each of these contests.
I do advise Heat fans not to get too excited about this recent stretch of great play, considering they haven’t been able to pull out wins against top-quality opponents. They did beat the struggling Hawks and below-average Wizards, but neither of these teams can be considered title contenders.
They were able to pull out a very quality win against Indiana and had the lead against Golden State for what seemed like 47 minutes and 59 seconds, but just couldn’t handle Stephen Curry’s unworldly abilities in the clutch.
I’ve been a huge Dragic fan since his glory days in Phoenix, so I’ve never doubted his abilities, even though he hasn’t performed up to expected standards in a Heat uniform. When Dragic was sidelined with a calf injury a little over a month ago, I wrote an article saying how he was the key to this team’s success. Even though this happened to be while Bosh was still playing, Bosh’s absence could’ve easily been what Dragic needed to get going. Without Bosh, a lot more responsibility relies on Dragic’s shoulders, and he has taken this opportunity and thrived.
In the six games since the All-Star break, he has averaged 18.7 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game. I understand that this is only a six game sample, but the only players in the league to average these numbers on a nightly basis are Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who have both been legitimate MVP candidates over the past two seasons.
He has put up these numbers while shooting an abysmal 19.0% from the three-point arc. I expect this percentage to vastly improve considering Dragic is a career 35.8% three-point shooter, which is slightly above the league average of 35.3%. Besides the dreadful three-point shooting, Dragic has really been showing off every aspect of his game. He has the ability drive strong to either hand, make floaters over big men, pull up for mid-range jumpers, and sink three-pointers (even though that hasn’t been the case recently.)
Watch here as Dragic drives strong to his left hand, stops on a dime, and sinks the elbow jump-shot over arguably the Celtic’s best defender, Avery Bradley.
One of the best aspects of Dragic’s game is his ability to create in the lane. He can either finish strongly at the basket or pull up for a little floater over the big man.
Notice how Dragic drives in the lane and shields off Boston’s Isaiah Thomas to get in better position for the shot. He then notices that Amir Johnson has stepped up to defend him, and decides to float the ball over him for the easy bucket.
With Bosh and now Udrih out for the year, the Heat will need to rely on Dragic’s playmaking abilities more than ever for this team to have a chance at a top-3 seed. Even if they don’t get this coveted top-3 seed, expect Dragic to have a major impact throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs.
Whiteside Becomes a Brightside:
Since his arrival in the NBA last season, Hassan Whiteside has been somewhat of a wild card. While his skills and gigantic frame clearly allow him to thrive in the NBA, his maturity issues and the league’s new three-point-oriented style has turned him into a big question mark. His impending unrestricted free agency this summer, along with a huge spike in the salary cap, align him for a gigantic payday. With the absence of Bosh, Whiteside has taken full advantage of his increased playing time.
Whiteside was suspended for the first game preceding the All-Star break, but has been an absolute bully in the post in his last five games.
Even though he has lost his starting job to Amar’e Stoudemire, Hassan Whiteside has been playing a ton of minutes and has provided the thin bench with a much-needed boost. He has averaged 18.8 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks per game over his last five games. Obviously these numbers are insanely tough to keep up, but expect Whiteside to continue to clean up the boards, considering he is their only reliable rebounder.
Whiteside is also a top-5 defender in the NBA. Even with a little less than a third of the NBA season left, Whiteside has already just about clinched the blocks per game title, averaging an immense 3.9 per game.
His incredible ability to block shots is something we haven’t seen much within the past decade. Watch here as Boston has a three on one fast break against Whiteside. He manages to stay put around the basket, account for all three defenders, and easily swat away the shot attempt by Jonas Jerebko.
According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, since the start of 2016, the Heat have been allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the bench but only 96.0 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside anchoring the defense. This would rank second in the league, only behind San Antonio’s defensive machine, who only allows 95.7 points per 100 possessions.
Whiteside must stay healthy and out of trouble throughout the remainder of the season for Miami to be successful. The Heat have absolutely no size without their 7’0” giant, and would get demolished on the boards without his incredible combination of strength and stature.
Luol Has Arrived:
Luol Deng has undoubtedly been the glue guy since Bosh’s departure. Even though he is a typical small forward at 6’9”, he has taken on the role of guarding opposing power forwards, who are typically two to three inches taller than him and own an additional 15-25 pounds. This physical deficit hasn’t stopped him from being extremely successful in this role.
As we learned from his time in Chicago, the two-time All-Star has the strength to guard taller and heavier opponents, while also displaying the quickness to drive around these competitors and create for his teammates.
Deng has five double-doubles in his past six games, showing his importance considering he has had one in the Heat’s previous 53 games this season. His versatility gives him the opportunity to be a huge difference maker on both ends of the court. Deng’s ability to finish in the paint, knock down open three-pointers, and set teammates up for easy buckets has allowed him to thrive on the offensive end. Defensively, he has the strength to guard larger opponents and consistently snag down double-digit rebounds.
Deng is expected to stay healthy, considering he’s only missed 9 total games in the past 11 seasons. Assuming he can fulfill this string of good fortune, Deng will continue to put up monster numbers on a team that needs to rely on his pure abilities. Luckily for the Heat, Deng has showed he can lead his team through a couple of rounds in the playoffs.
Style and New Opportunities:
Bosh did allow the Heat to space the floor extremely well, but this hasn’t changed with him sidelined. Miami has actually become a more versatile team without Bosh. Playing Deng and Winslow together allows them to play more small-ball. Even though they are both considered small forwards, they each have the natural strength to guard power forward. This allows them to switch on screens whenever necessary, eliminating the pick and roll as a major threat.
The season-ending injury to Beno Udrih has opened up floor time for rookie Josh Richardson, who is also known to be a lock-down defender. Richardson is a 6’6” shooting guard, who has the quickness to stay in front of his man but also the length to contest every shot.
He was tasked with guarding Stephen Curry when they played the Warriors Wednesday night, and stayed with him relatively well. Curry did have 42 points, 26 of which came on three-pointers and foul shots. Everyone knows that regardless of how much you contest Curry on a three, there’s a good chance the ball is going to find the bottom of the net. Richardson also held Curry to below his season field goal percentage average, which is pretty good for a rookie who’s only played a total of 383 minutes in his NBA career. Expect him to gain more and more confidence as his role continues to expand.
In other news:
The Heat have officially signed former Brooklyn Nets shooting guard, Joe Johnson. The seven-time All-Star has averaged 17.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists during his 15-year career. Even after being recruited by numerous playoff contenders, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, Johnson decided to choose the Miami Heat because of his relationship with Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Udonis Haslem. Johnson’s production has declined in recent years, but that could be because of his lack of a supporting cast.
He also fits very well into Miami’s system, owning the strength and size to play and guard multiple positions. Johnson is shooting 37.1% from beyond the three-point line this season. This is no fluke considering he is coincidentally a career 37.1% three-point shooter. This will clearly benefit the worst three-point shooting team in the league. Johnson surely isn’t the same player he was in his prime, but there’s no doubt in my mind he will benefit this Heat roster, both on the floor and in the locker room.
Miami has an extremely easy schedule over the course of the next week and a half. The Heat play four out of their next five games against teams with a losing record, including a home and home against Philadelphia next week.
They should be able to come out of the Eastern Conference as a third or fourth seed, but the fourth seed would be a disappointment because of an almost guaranteed matchup with LeBron James and his Cavaliers in the second round. Avoiding the Cavaliers is the goal of every playoff team in the East.
Miami’s defense will continue to dominate and control games, especially against the easy competition in the upcoming weeks. It’s tough to feel good about Miami’s chances without one of their star players, but if any team has the supporting cast to will this team to victory, it’s the Heat.