The NBA’s most incredible story of 2017 became a little more incredible on Wednesday night, as the Heat pushed its improbable string of victories to 12 in a row, equaling the Golden State Warriors for the league’s longest winning streak this season.
The Heat jumped to a 17-2 lead, led by 18 after three quarters and dispatched the Bucks, 106-88.
Milwaukee never drew closer than 12 in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we had something special; it just had to click,” guard Goran Dragic said in a generally reserved postgame locker room, where there was no puffing of chests and not the least bit of boasting about what Miami has achieved.
With the win, the Heat (23-30) remained two games behind No. 8 Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Heat also set a record for longest winning streak by an NBA team with a losing record.
“I’m not going to talk about the streak,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “It’s about a group of players coming together to form an identity as a team.”
Wednesday’s resounding win featured a dominating performance from Hassan Whiteside, who set the tone early with 17 points and 11 rebounds in the first half and finished with 23 and 16, shooting 10 for 12 from the field.
Teammates consistently looked for Whiteside, who dominated his matchup with John Henson and, at times, Greg Monroe.
“Why not feed the hot hand?” forward Rodney McGruder said. “Hassan played phenomenal.”
This was Whiteside’s 19th game with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds, which is second-most in the NBA.
But beyond the numbers, Spoelstra said Whiteside’s “attention to detail and approach every day have improved.”
Whiteside appreciated his teammates looking for him: “These are great guys, all about making the best plays.”
Whiteside got plenty of help.
Dragic added 16 points and seven assists.
James Johnson was a huge factor with 20 points, including 17 in the second half.
And Wayne Ellington, starting in the absence of the injured Dion Waiters, scored 17, including a banked-in three-pointer and nine points in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s evolution, particularly offensively, has been one of the heartening stories of the season.
“He’s a dynamic, versatile player,” Spoelstra said. “He’s been open to playing within the system and allowing his versatility to come out through ball movement. He’s doing it at both ends of the floor.”
And don’t overlook McGruder’s night. The numbers weren’t extraordinary (10 points, 4-for-13 shooting, six rebounds, three assists), but teammates couldn’t stop raving about how he makes an imprint on games with hustle plays and defensive verve.
“It’s amazing,” Whiteside said. “I’ve never seen someone put their nose on the ball on every possession [like that]. He’s really hungry. Ever since we brought him up from the jungle, he’s been eating.”
Spoelstra said the coaching staff gave McGruder “the proverbial game ball. It felt like he had 22 points, 15 assists.”
Throw in the first career three-pointer from center Willie Reed (he had taken only two previously in his career) and seven points and five rebounds from Okaro White, and this was another splendid team effort by Miami, which had only 10 players available but never trailed, shot 47.7 percent and dominated the boards, 48-34.
In the locker room afterward, players followed Spoelstra’s lead and downplayed the winning streak.
“We’re not even talking about it,” McGruder said. “You get full of yourself when you talk about how good you are.”
Asked if 12 in a row is meaningful and a source of pride, Johnson said: “I don’t think so. I honestly don’t.”
But isn’t 12 a big number, guys?
“It’s a big number; the result from our hard work,” Dragic said, adding that the players don’t talk about the streak and that he’s “always thinking who is the next opponent.”
Bradley Center was the arena where the Heat suffered its last loss, on Jan. 13, but Dragic said “we’re a completely different team right now.”
Two nights after allowing 113 points in Minnesota, the Heat gave up only 88. It helped that Milwaukee shot just 16 for 28 from the free-throw line.
“We played really well defensively,” Dragic said. “We were the more physical team.”
The Bucks got 22 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo and five from Khris Middleton in his season debut but lost Jabari Parker for good in the third quarter with a left knee sprain.
And so the Heat’s streak lives on. This 12-game run ties the third-longest in franchise history, two short of the second-longest (set in the 2004-05 season) but still well behind the 2012-13 Heat’s 27-game streak.
And with three sub-.500 teams coming up — at Brooklyn on Friday, at Philadelphia on Saturday and home against Orlando on Monday — there’s no telling how long it will go.
“From the outside world looking in, it probably looks different or lucky,” Johnson said. “Not for us. We were trending in the right way offensively and defensively. We were losing clutch games, but we weren’t losing to terrible teams. We were playing great teams, and we never made excuses for ourselves.”