From the depths of 11-30, the Heat continues to play can-you-top-this, adding to its list of astonishing achievements.
The 13-game winning streak, the longest in NBA history by a sub-.500 team, was remarkable enough.
But if that somehow didn’t capture the NBA’s full attention, this should: a sweep of a home-and-home series with the defending NBA champion Cavaliers, punctuated by a 106-98 win on Monday that stands as arguably Miami’s most impressive victory of the season.
“We believe in ourselves and if other people don’t, we have done a good job of opening eyes,” said guard Dion Waiters, who scored 29 points, including a late banked-in 32-footer to seal the game. “We need to keep flying under the radar.”
And consider the circumstances Monday: The Heat played without James Johnson and Tyler Johnson, one of the NBA’s best scoring bench duos, and also lost Luke Babbitt (who was on a 21 for 32 three-point tear) to back spasms after the first quarter, leaving them with nine available players.
Playing against a rested LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — who sat out Saturday’s 120-92 Heat rout — the Heat rode a 24-point first half from Waiters and excellent work from Wayne Ellington, Goran Dragic and others in the second half to win its first game in Cleveland since James left the Heat.
The Heat had been 5-0 against the Cavaliers in Miami since James returned to Cleveland but 0-4 in Ohio.
So make it 19 wins in 23 games for the Heat (30-34), which closed to within one-and-a-half games of Chicago and Detroit, who are tied for seventh and eighth.
“It’s not like we’re winning a lot of games against bad teams; we’ve shown we can play against the best,” Dragic said, with the Heat having beaten Cleveland and Houston and Atlanta twice each, and Golden State once, since mid-January
The Heat led by 15 in the first half and by 10 at intermission. But after the Cavaliers closed to within three, the Heat responded, thanks to a couple of dunks from Hassan Whiteside and three third-quarter threes from Ellington.
Then the margin grew to 20 in the fourth quarter, with Dragic scoring 10 points in less than four minutes.
Cleveland drew to within five with 1:05 left but no closer. James missed a three with 36 seconds left, and Waiters then banked in the dagger with 12 seconds left. “I’ve got to take that shot,” Waiters said. “I’ve been there before.”
Erik Spoelstra called Waiters “fearless” and cited “that irrational confidence. Sometimes it drives you nuts. He can do special things out there. To beat teams like that, you need guys like Dion and Goran that create something out of nothing.”
After scoring a combined 11 points on 4 for 21 shooting in the Heat’s past two games, Waiters worked with Heat shooting coach Rob Fodor after the team’s shootaround on Monday.
Waiters scored 14 points in the first quarter and went to the half with 24 on 10 for 12 shooting, including four for four on three-pointers.
“I was locked in,” he said. “Because the Johnson brothers weren’t playing, I needed to be overly aggressive. I told myself to get in the paint.”
Waiters shot 2 for 12 in the second half but Dragic (21 points) Ellington (18 points) and Rodney McGruder (11) offered considerable help.
Spoelstra said Ellington’s “shooting routine and program is Ray Allen-ish. Strokes like that don’t happen by accident.”
Whiteside struggled with his shot early but closed with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Irving scored 32 and James 30, but no other Cavs player reached double figures.
Without his top bench scorers, Spoelstra left his starters in longer, then started Okaro White in the second half in place of the ailing Babbitt, and had White spend a lot of time defending James.
“You have to play the best player on the planet; figure it out,” Spoelstra cracked.
Every available Heat player played except Udonis Haslem.
Undetermined is how long the Johnsons will miss.
James Johnson’s right elbow laceration, sustained during Saturday’s game against Cleveland, gives him discomfort when he moves his arm or when it’s bumped.
“Let's hope” it’s a short-term injury, he said, with Spoelstra saying “we have to make sure that elbow doesn’t get infected.”
Tyler Johnson said his injury is a sore left shoulder sustained against Orlando last Wednesday and he hopes to return Wednesday against Charlotte but was far from sure.
He said he feels “a little discomfort” but said “it’s nothing that's going to keep out a long time. I know it's nothing crazy serious. It’s just real sore.”
This is the fourth time in two years that Johnson has missed time with a left shoulder issue. Johnson missed eight games with a strained left shoulder in December 2015, then missed the final 35 regular-season games last season after left rotator cuff surgery before returning during the playoffs.
He sat out six games with a strained left shoulder in January. He also had problems with the same shoulder at Fresno State.
Asked if this is related to any of those past shoulder injuries, Johnson said: “I don't know for sure. [Doctors] were pretty optimistic.”
Among NBA players who have not made a start this season, Tyler Johnson ranks second in scoring at 13.9 per game and James Johnson third at 12.1. Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter is first at 14.4.
The Cavs were without coach Tyron Lue, who was sick (Larry Drew filled in), as well as injured Kevin Love and JR Smith, and lost Andrew Bogut less than a minute into his Cleveland debut when he fractured his tibia.