At times this season and as recently as last week, Dwyane Wade has been downright depressed about the state of his basketball team. Now is not one of those times.
That Wade returned home to Miami on Saturday morning upbeat and, in a way, excited about the remainder of the Heat’s season despite another hamstring injury might be the best thing to come out of Miami’s five-game trip to the West Coast. Wade strained his left hamstring on Tuesday in Los Angeles only two days after the Heat’s best game of the season, a 14-point blowout of the Clippers. But the Heat adjusted to his absence and went 2-1 without Wade, including a 95-83 victory late Friday night against the Sacramento Kings.
The Heat (18-22) is a different team now than when it left for the West Coast nearly two weeks ago, and that’s a good thing. Wade declined interview requests Friday before and after the Heat’s final victory of its trip, but his coach spoke for him.
“If [Wade] could play, we would rather him play, and he would rather play,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He is beside himself right now. He wants to be out there just as he felt things were starting to turn the corner not only for himself but for his team. You could feel it.”
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Wade has rested his hamstring since straining it on Tuesday against the Lakers. The Heat plays the Oklahoma City Thunder this Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, and a home victory against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would count as one of the Heat’s most important milestones of the season.
The Heat is a better team than when it left for the West Coast, and the team was more upbeat after Friday’s game than perhaps at any point this season. All things considered, the past 10 days arguably have been the most productive for the Heat. The team found a starting center to complement Chris Bosh, fixed its defense and finished perhaps its most difficult trip of the season at 3-2.
“You see how quickly things can change,” Spoelstra said. “Guys are starting to see some progress. There are tangible results from the wins, but that’s never what it has been about for us. It’s a process of starting to commit and getting on the same page about our defense, which has been better. Offensively, yes we have had to reinvent a little bit from the beginning of the year, but guys are fast-tracking.”
On Friday in Sacramento, Wade missed his second consecutive game with a strained left hamstring and Chris Andersen sat out the game due to a fever, but the Heat still had more than enough to outplay a shorthanded Kings team missing Rudy Gay, Carl Landry, Ramon Sessions and Eric Moreland. Chris Bosh led the Heat with 30 points, Luol Deng had 25 points and rookie point guard Shabazz Napier had 12 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I’m glad we were able to close this out,” Bosh said. “The easy thing would have been for us to just give this up because we were ready to go home, but it was a mentally challenging game. We were mentally tough, and I’m glad we stayed with it today.”
After the game, the Heat sang “Happy Birthday” to Wade on the team plane back to Miami, and new starting center Hassan Whiteside posted it to his Twitter account. The video collaboration was a throwback to the Heat’s glory days with LeBron James, when it would regularly flood social media with signs of a unified locker room.
The biggest difference between the Heat that struggled through December and this improved team is a defense that can keep a game close even when its best players are hurt or missing shots. Once one of the worst defensive teams in the league, the Heat has overhauled its approach to fit its personnel and is now playing slow and deliberate basketball. It’s working. The Heat led 75-61 after the third quarter in Sacramento, and the Kings, a team trying to implement an up-tempo offense, entered the fourth quarter shooting 22 of 56 from the field (39.3 percent).
“We’re not trying to play that pace up and down,” Wade said earlier in the week. “It was good at the beginning of the year, but it was something I didn’t see holding up for this team at all, especially once the season settled in and all the coaches settled in and got a chance to pick each player apart.
“I’m glad that we’re at this pace and I think we’re more effective at the pace that we’re playing at.”
A three-pointer by Deng off of the Kings’ 12th turnover put the Heat ahead by 13 points with 5:28 to play. He then drilled another three-pointer with 1:26 left in the quarter to give Miami a 75-58 lead. Because Deng mostly plays without the ball in his hands, when he plays well it’s usually a good sign that the Heat’s point guards moved the ball and created chances for their teammates.
Making his second career start, Napier facilitated the offense admirably and didn’t commit the majority of his mistakes until the game already was decided in the fourth quarter. The rookie began the road trip in Sioux Falls, S.D., with the Heat’s D-League affiliate before meeting the Heat in Portland.
“We won in a bunch of different ways, and I think we finally found out our style,” Bosh said of the road trip. “We’re going to have to be a very good defensive team, and with the exception of Golden State — and Portland, too, but those are high-powered offensive teams — we played pretty good defense on this trip. When we get to our style of basketball, I think we’re a tough team to beat. But the tough part is just getting there, and making sure we stay where we’re supposed to.”