So how has the Miami Heat gone from hovering a game or two above or below .500 to suddenly entering the midway point of the season with the eighth-best record in the league at 24-17 and on pace to match its regular-season win total in Dwyane Wade’s final season with the team?
It’s certainly not the fact that the Heat has been outscored by its opponents by 42 points collectively or ranks 27th in pace and scoring (101 points per game).
The reason this Heat team is winning: It knows how to win in the clutch.
Miami’s 18-7 record in games in which the score differential is five points or fewer with five minutes or less left in regulation, ranks third in the league behind only the Boston Celtics (20-7) and San Antonio Spurs (13-5). Miami’s record in clutch games has been 12-2 since Dec. 1.
“We just have trust in one another,” said Tyler Johnson, whose 3-pointer in Wednesday’s win in Indiana broke a 97-all tie and put the Heat back in front of the Pacers for good.
“We’ve been in so many close games these last two years. It’s funny because we don’t want to bring up last year, but there was so many times last year when we were looking around to see who is going to make the play. We understand it’s by committee. It could be J-Rich [Josh Richardson] one night. Then Wayne [Ellington] comes back the next night and hits a big shot. We understand it’s by committee. That’s our biggest thing down the stretch: We’re not relying on one guy. Everybody is a threat. Everybody is an option. So everybody is ready.”
The Heat ranks No. 1 in 3-point shooting in the clutch (45.8 percent), No. 2 in overall field-goal percentage in the clutch (52.1 percent), No. 1 in opposing 3-point shooting in the clutch (20.0 percent) and No. 2 in opponent field-goal percentage in the clutch (34.6 percent).
The Heat team that finished the second half of last season 30-11 wasn’t that good, going 13-8 in clutch games during that stretch with shooting percentages offensively and defensively far less impressive.
“We’re continuing to get better,” said Ellington, who has made the decisive bucket in each of the Heat’s past two road wins at Toronto and Indiana. “We never looked and felt sorry for ourselves or felt like we weren’t capable. We knew we were capable because we’ve shown it and we’ve done it before. It was just a matter of acclimating the new guys and everybody coming together and finding that gel again. I feel like we’re here. It took us until the mid-season last season also to get rolling. So here we are, man. I feel like we’re finally showing what we’re capable of.”
Taking shots in late-game situations for the Heat was a responsibility that once belonged to All-Stars such as Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Last season, it was Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic who had the ball in their hands primarily.
This season, Ellington (6 of 10, 60 percent), Richardson (12 of 21, 57.1 percent), James Johnson (4 of 15, 26.7 percent) and Kelly Olynyk (8 of 10, 80 percent) are all taking clutch shots and sharing that responsibility with Dragic (15 of 34, 44.1 percent) now that Waiters (18 of 35, 51.4 percent) has been sidelined by an ankle injury.
“Spo plays his lineups late in games based off who is producing that night,” Johnson said. “It’s not based off favoritism. It’s not based off contracts. It’s not based off anything like that.”
“We’ve continued to make sure we’re aggressive on the offensive end, continue to play together,” Ellington said. “We don’t get frantic and start taking bad shots, out-of-character shots. We’re working together, we’re playing together. And on defense, man, we’re coming together and we’re digging in. We understand what’s on the line, we understand we need to get stops. We’re capable of that and we’re getting it done.”
▪ The Heat on Thursday assigned both of its two-way contract players, guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr., to G-League affiliate Sioux Falls, which is playing in the G-League Showcase in Canada. Both players are eligible to rejoin the Heat when Miami hosts Milwaukee on Sunday. Forward James Johnson, though, will return from his one-game suspension for Sunday's game and neither player could be needed.