For the first three months of this Heat season, a team that prided itself on being Road Warriors inexplicably dissolved into Road Worriers, with Heat players and staff concerned and puzzled by their subpar play outside AmericanAirlines Arena and needing half a season to correct it.
Much has changed since, and the Heat — holding a 2-0 lead in this first-round series against the Bucks — enters Thursday’s Game 3 in Milwaukee having won 18 of its past 19 away from home.
What’s more, the Heat has been doing it convincingly, outscoring opponents by 10 points per game, on average, during those 19 games, with the only loss a four-point setback in Chicago that ended Miami’s overall 27-game winning streak.
“Everybody was talking about it, and we knew we were better than that,” Chris Bosh said of the team’s 11-11 start on the road, which included losses by 20 to the Knicks, 19 to Milwaukee, 18 to Memphis, 13 to Indiana and 10 to Detroit.
“We knew to defend our title, playing on the road was a huge part of it,” Bosh said. “We stopped making excuses and got the job done.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra on Wednesday explained the Heat’s renaissance on the road quite simply:
“More consistent minutes defensively. The first 20 games, it wasn’t the championship hangover.
“There were a handful of gaps during the game that we were not defending the way we’re capable of.”
“Last two or three months, it was more consistent,” Spoelstra continued.
Here’s the evidence: During the 11-11 start on the road, the Heat allowed 97.4 points per game. In the 19 road games since, it’s 90.7. Steals and blocks have come with greater frequency.
“We were pretty loose those first 22 games,” forward Shane Battier said. “The effort we gave just wasn’t good enough. [Since then], we’ve played harder, played with more concentration.”
Surprisingly, the Heat is averaging slightly more turnovers on the road during the 18-1 roll than during the 11-11 stretch.
The difference offensively is that the Heat has shot better — 49.7 percent overall (compared with 47.2 during the first 22 road games) and 40.2 percent on threes, compared with 36.9. Miami has shot free throws slightly better, too.
The upshot is that the Heat has averaged 100.7 points on the road in the past 19 games, compared with 96.8 the first 22.
The improved shooting on the road during this 18-1 joyride has been especially pronounced with four players: Dwyane Wade (45.8 percent during the first 22 road games, 54.4 on the road since), Udonis Haslem (43.5, 53.3), Battier (40, 49.5) and Norris Cole (39.2, 46.5).
Others, such as Ray Allen and LeBron James, have seen their road shooting percentages rise a bit, too.
The Heat expects an emotionally charged atmosphere in Game 3. But as far as hostility directed toward Heat players, “I don’t think it will ever be like year one” of the Big 3 era, Bosh said.
And “we’re a much better team now. We’re more composed in stressful situations.”
Wade said playing his first playoff game in Milwaukee — where he attended college at Marquette — “is going to be emotional for me. Milwaukee has been special to me and my family. Going back there for the playoffs, it’s a cool thing.
“I know that place can be very loud. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. They’re going to give us their best shot. We’ve got to be able to withstand them and still be there late in the game and have a chance to win.”
It’s unusual for an active player to see his jersey hanging in the rafters of a visiting arena, but that has been the case for Wade at the Bradley Center since Marquette retired his number in 2007.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Every time I look up there, I think how far I came. So many memories in Milwaukee. No one knew who I was. … Just to be in the category of great players to come out of there is humbling.”
But that’s a side story to the big picture here — the Heat’s desire to make quick work of the Bucks and close out their series quickly, potentially as early as Game 4 Sunday. The Heat hasn’t swept a playoff series in the Big 3 era.
This is the 11th time the Heat has gone ahead 2-0 in a series; Miami won the previous 10.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Spoelstra cautioned. “We did what we’re supposed to do we held — home court. This will be a desperate, competitive response from them. We have to find a way to steal one and take control of this series.”