Pat Riley has always used the first 20 games of a season as a barometer to figure out what kind of team he has – one that could contend or one that isn’t really headed anywhere.
That has to have become a tougher task this season with the number of injuries the Heat has had to key players thus far, and the fact some of them like Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson could be back soon.
Throw in what Miami (7-13) did on this little three-game road trip out West – when the Heat won in Denver and Utah and was up six points in Portland with a little over three minutes to play Saturday night before it ran out of gas – and it only makes figuring this team out all the more difficult.
“As much as this business is about the wins and losses – and we get that as much as anybody – it has to be about our process and getting better,” coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters in Portland after his tired team was outscored 14-1 down the stretch of a 99-92 loss.
“We see our team as getting better,” Spoelstra continued. “Nobody will recognize it with our record, but the team is getting better. Hassan Whiteside, from the first two weeks of the season to where is he is now and where he's going to go, it’s night and day. This guy is coming.”
Whiteside, the centerpiece of this franchise after signing a four-year, $98 million deal this summer, has delivered the way Riley hoped he would. He’s tied with Russell Westbrook for the league lead with 16 double-doubles after Saturday and leading the league in rebounding (14.9), offensive rebounds (4.4), while ranking third in blocks (2.6) and topping the Heat in scoring with 17.8 points per game.
Saturday night, Whiteside played the entire second half and finished with 28 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks while matching a career-high with 41 minutes played.
“I had plenty left,” a visibly spent Whiteside told FoxSports after the game. “You’d love to go 3-0, but any time you go positive on a road trip it’s always motivation. I think we build on this. We've just got to play like this at home. We’ve got some building blocks to build on. When we get back to Miami, we can build on this.”
Whiteside isn’t the only reason for optimism.
The Heat, which has had 11 players combine to miss 78 games thus far, has been building a level of toughness for weeks playing short-handed, Spoelstra said.
Miami’s offense is also finally starting to settle in after some early struggles. Even though the Heat turned it over 13 times in Saturday’s loss, it combined for 12 turnovers in its wins at Denver and Utah, a franchise-best for fewest turnovers over a two-game span.
The Heat has also shot 47.2 from the field and averaged 104 points over its last five games – significantly better than the 94.8 points per game and 41.8 percent it shot over its first 15 games.
“Spacing,” point guard Goran Dragic explained before Saturday’s game of why the Heat is turning it over less and scoring more. “How we play, everybody is getting to their spots. The read, it’s much easier to read the game like that.”
Spoelstra credited Dragic’s sterling return from a left elbow sprain for much of the Heat’s improvement in terms of efficiency. The 30-year-old point guard has averaged 22 points and posted 38 assists and only eight turnovers since returning to the Heat lineup four games ago against the Boston Celtics.
“The more banged up he gets the better he's playing,” Spoelstra said after Saturday’s loss, which snapped a three-game road winning streak and dropped the Heat to 5-6 overall on the road. “That's the kind of competitor he is… Goran is getting into a great groove for us and we need him to make so many plays.”
Against Portland, a second round playoff team last season, the Heat simply ran out of bodies and gas late.
After James Johnson was ejected with 20.8 seconds left in the third quarter when he picked up his second technical foul, Spoelstra went with a six-man rotation of Whiteside, Dragic, Josh McRoberts (who had a season-high 13 points Saturday), Wayne Ellington (who is averaging 15 points since his return four games ago), Tyler Johnson and rookie Rodney McGruder for the rest of the game.
Help, though, could soon be on the way.
Winslow, who started the Heat’s first nine games at small forward, stayed home on the road trip to work through the soreness in his left wrist and could be back as early as Tuesday. Richardson, who has missed the last three games with a sprained ankle, will only help fortify an improved Miami bench with Ellington once he’s cleared to return.
Still, the Heat enter Tuesday’s showdown with the New York Knicks (10-9) sporting an ugly 2-7 home record.
Maybe Riley has already seen enough of that to figure out what he has, what he needs and what the Heat’s next step is moving forward.