Erik Spoelstra has learned a thing or two over the years about winning streaks.
He coached the third-longest in NBA history with the Big Three, a 27-game run during a 66-16 regular season back in 2013.
He’s won at least eight games in a row 11 times in his career, including twice in the playoffs. That’s five more times than Pat Riley.
So, while he’s not taking this latest eight-game run by the Heat for granted, Spoelstra also isn’t allowing this recent taste of success get to his players’ heads.
After all, this team lost six games in a row twice earlier this season, and entered Tuesday 4 1/2 games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And despite what outsiders may believe, the Heat still very much think this season can be stretched beyond the regular season.
“If we’re talking about a streak, we’re focusing on the wrong thing,” Spoelstra said Tuesday as the Heat (19-30) prepared to host the Atlanta Hawks (28-20) on Wednesday night. “That’s exactly what you have to fight. I hate that. It’s just the same when we were 1-9. It wasn’t about the record [then]. It was about the process, get in here and focus on getting better.
“It’s so easy in this league to make excuses, to feel sorry for yourselves, to have an agenda when you lose. It’s just as easy when you win to relax and start thinking about the result and how many wins can you win in a row. Many of these games came down the stretch in close fourth quarter games that we had to improve on our execution that we weren’t doing six weeks ago. But because of those losses, we improved on that. That doesn’t guarantee you anything. A win doesn’t guarantee you that it will carry over until the next day. What you can guarantee is that you come in with the right mindset to improve today.”
For all the good the Heat has done over this winning streak — leading the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (42.4) while holding teams to a league-best 29.2 percent from beyond the arc and giving up only 98.8 points (second-fewest) per game —Spoelstra has seen plenty of areas where his team can be better, including getting off to faster starts on the defensive end.
“My question to the team is ‘Why does it have to wait until the fourth quarter?,” Spoelstra said. “Now, with some healthier bodies, we can play a deeper rotation. We have to have that kind of commitment and focus all the way throughout.
“Overall our [starting] backcourt [of Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters] last night scored 39 points had 17 assists and only two turnovers. That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still not enough. [They shot] 42 percent, so maybe some of those shots could have been kicks or plays for somebody else or better efficiency at finishing. [Waiters’] six rebounds, I thought he had a chance for four or five more. That easily could have been a triple-double night for him if he really focused on every single play making an impact.”
Spoelstra’s message is certainly resonating with his players. Nobody appears to be drunk off the team’s recent run of success —not even Waiters, who was named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week on Monday. He said he looks forward to the new challenges Spoelstra puts forth.
“He’s always got something new for me,” Waiters said with a grin. “It’s so much room for improvement with me still. I’m not satisfied at all. Just becoming an overall better basketball player, making guys better, challenging myself better on the defensive end. … I’ve got to work on everything.”
Dragic, who has arguably been the Heat’s best player this season, said he feels like he can “stay on the ball better” as a defender, do a better job rebounding, and run the Heat’s offense more consistently.
James Johnson, who has been a revelation with the Heat this season by posting career-best numbers, said he can cut down on his turnovers, do a better job helping his teammates get to their spots when he’s handling the ball, and be more talkative on defense.
“When we were on a losing streak, nobody here was paying attention to the record on this team,” Johnson said. “We were coming in, working hard every day, getting better, building something good for us. Now that we’re on a winning streak guys have the same mentality as we did when we were on a losing one.”
And that mentality is ultimately why team captain Udonis Haslem believes there’s still much more ahead for this Heat team. During his rookie season in 2003-04, the Heat actually faced longer odds of making the playoffs. They were 11 games under .500 at 25-36 on March 2 and finished with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference at 42-40.
“It’s been fun,” Haslem said of the winning streak. “But we’re still like 10 games under .500. I won’t allow [for us to be satisfied]. The coaching staff won’t allow that.
“We’ve put a couple wins together, but we’re still not where we want to be. We still have room to grow, a ways to go. In the long run we want to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs. We want to keep chipping away at it.”
Wednesday: Hawks at Heat
When/where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish)
Series: Heat lead 60-49
Scouting report: Luke Babbitt (right ankle) didn’t practice Tuesday and is questionable for the Heat, which lost both of the previous meetings with Atlanta earlier this season. The Hawks have won 13 of their last 17 games.