Think back on the Heat team that appeared to be drowning at Christmas and dead in the water one month ago.
The Heat lost six in a row during a glum holiday season, then another four in a row as hopeful New Year’s resolutions dissolved with a 127-100 humiliation by the putrid Los Angeles Lakers.
The Heat was 11-30 on Friday, Jan. 13, at the season’s halfway point. The team was so bad even Pat Riley felt compelled to apologize for its performance.
Since then, a turnaround for the record books, an 11-game winning streak that includes upsets of Houston and James “The Beard” Harden and the glam Golden State Warriors, plus a 23-point rout of Atlanta.
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Who are these guys?
How did they find their mojo?
Can they win No. 12 in a row at Milwaukee on Wednesday and surpass the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns for longest winning streak by a team with a losing record in NBA history?
Watch them while they are living up to their flaming logo. The Heat is turning the NBA inside out. This team of no-names and nomads, retreads and never-treads, journeymen and lost causes is proving that good coaching, good chemistry and good defense can be successful.
In a star-driven league, the Heat has constructed a constellation out of Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed and Rodney McGruder.
Rodney Who? That’s McGruder, undrafted out of Kansas State and a product of the D-League. D for developmental, not a letter grade.
Tyler Johnson, an Air Force brat who first dunked as a 5-8 high school freshman, was also undrafted, out of Fresno State, and played for the Heat’s D-league affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, where current Heat assistant Dan Craig nurtured these guys. Reed is another Skyforce graduate. Coach Erik Spoelstra refers to it as “the frozen tundra” — the perfect place to learn the Heat Way of unselfish diligence.
Waiters was the No. 4 draft pick out of Syracuse but was a bust with Cleveland and Oklahoma City.
Wayne Ellington is playing for his seventh pro team. Dragic was a second-round pick who never quite hit his stride in Phoenix. Whiteside, the 7-0 shot blocker who creates havoc in the post, is on his 11th pro team, including the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Amchit of Lebanon and the Sichuan Blue Whales of China after being waived by the Sacramento Kings.
The Heat, which relied on Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James to win its three NBA championships, is bucking league gospel by winning without a superstar. There is no one remotely resembling Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or James on this roster.
They are winning despite being the most injured team in the league. Don’t forget Bosh is out, forever, in Riley’s eyes.
It’s no fluke that the Heat improved to 22-30. The players got healthier, found their stroke and had time to harmonize after starting the season as a collection of discarded parts.
“We are understanding each other now,” Dragic said after making seven three-pointers and 13 of 17 shots in Monday’s 115-113 win at Minnesota. He’s gone from trade bait to hottest point guard in the league. “It’s fun.”
Miami scored 40 points in the first quarter, 71 in the first half — this from a team that could not score 100 points in a game a month ago.
Whiteside added 19 points and 13 rebounds and Rodney Who? contributed 15.
The Heat almost blew it by committing three turnovers in the last 39 seconds. Spoelstra took responsibility, saying he put his players in “awkward” positions and didn’t provide the right guidance in timeouts.
“We’ve developed thick skin,” he said, explaining that the Heat learned how to play “with a ridiculously bad record.”
But he also repeated the Heat mantra he first learned as a young, anonymous game film editor for the franchise: Defense, first and foremost.
The consistently underrated Spoelstra is doing the best coaching of his career. Condemned with faint praise as caretaker of the Big 3 and a puppet of Riley, Spoelstra is demonstrating how he maximizes the potential of his players — which should be the ultimate measure of any coach.
James Johnson, who sat on Toronto’s bench when the Heat played the Raptors in the playoffs, is a new man under Spoelstra. Waiters has refined his talent. Whiteside is becoming a complete big man. Dragic is at his peak.
Spo is also reinforcing the validity of the Heat system he so fervently believes in — vigorous work ethic, fitness, relentless defense, position-less basketball, patience, efficiency, sharing. Those who cringe at the ball-hogging freelancers of the modern NBA ought to love this throwback team.
But it is a long season, and the hole the Heat dug was very deep. The goal is to make the playoffs, and as of Tuesday Miami was two games behind Detroit for the final spot. The current streak will end, but at least now the Heat has the confidence to start another one.