Back in January, after the Miami Heat had lost its 30th game of the season on a chilly night in Milwaukee, Erik Spoelstra could not have imagined his season turning around the way it has.
Following the 116-108 loss to the Bucks, Miami’s fourth consecutive defeat to end a long 1-5 road trip, the Heat came home to face Houston — one of the top teams in the west.
Low and behold, the Heat beat the Rockets. Then Dallas and Milwaukee. Suddenly, the Heat’s season — dead at 11-30 — had a little life.
Miami won 13 consecutive games and turned its season around.
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After beating the host Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night as Hassan Whiteside tapped in a rebound from a Goran Dragic shot as the time expired, the Heat hold a one-game lead on Chicago for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons, 10th in the east, are 2 1/2-games back.
“It is a privilege, an absolute privilege and honor to be in games that mean something,” Spoelstra said on Tuesday.
Spoelstra was all smiles following the game Tuesday and why not?
The Heat came into the night with losses in three of four and everyone knew how big a win would be for both teams.
A loss for Miami and it would be heading into Wednesday’s game against the host New York Knicks playing with desperation and, perhaps, quite a bit of self doubt.
A win and everyone feels pretty good.
“We feel there’s something special about this group,” Spoelstra said. “We believe in that energy, that karma. Because we went through so many tough games, we developed some toughness.
“If for no other reason, when we’re down four, we’re not getting caught up in all that other stuff — officiating, distractions. It’s all about the task at hand. We had a very small chance to win that game. But to win it, we needed to execute and pursue all the way to the end. I truly believe the adversity we faced earlier has helped us with our mental stability and toughness.”
The mood was decidedly different on the other side of the Palace.
Stan Van Gundy, a mentor and close friend to Spoelstra, sat dejected after his Pistons lost yet once again.
Van Gundy, Detroit’s coach and team president, has been hard on himself publically as his team has foundered. After hitting the .500 mark earlier this month, Detroit has dropped eight of nine and are now 2 1/2 games back of the Heat for the final playoff spot.
“I’m the guy responsible here,” Van Gundy said in his pregame scrum. “I choose the players, the staff, have a great owner who will do anything. We’re not playing well at a crucial time of the year and I take full responsibility.
“I’m not separating from that. The guys need to go out there and get it done, but shoot, it’s on me as much as them — if not more so.”
After the game, one in which the Pistons held a four-point lead in the final minute yet lost by one, Van Gundy again took the blame.
“Our team fought hard and it’s tough to lose like that,” he said.
“It’s tough for me because I could have made better decisions that would have won us the game. ... We would have won the game if I would have done a better job.”
Yet Spoelstra was all smiles. He would not of been, obviously, had things worked out differently.
He got to enjoy the win for a few moments.
Soon, he would be on the bus for a long drive to the airport as he looked ahead to Wednesday’s game at Madison Square Garden.
Miami plays the Knicks twice in the next three nights and needs to win both.
“We can exhale for a minute,” Spoelstra said. “[Wednesday], we can expect this again. New York may not be playing for the same stakes Detroit and we are, but it’s back-to-back and crazy things happen.
“You saw what New York did to Detroit on Monday in a desperate situation. We have a lot at stake and our guys understand that. We’ll get up there and do it again.
“What better life could you have that this?”
Wednesday: Heat at Knicks
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; Madison Square Garden, New York.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710.
Series: New York leads 61-52.
Scouting report: Wednesday's game kicks off a home-and-home between the two with the season series finale Friday in Miami. The Knicks snapped a five-game slide by beating Detroit on Monday thanks in part to 27 points from Derrick Rose and 21 from Carmelo Anthony. Neither player are listed as starters by the Knicks for Wednesday's game.