Miami Heat

Five takeaways: With the Heat now above .500, what’s the plan? ‘Let’s just take off’

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 115-109 win over the Washington Wizards (15-24) on Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

1. The Heat (19-18) finds itself above the .500 mark for just the second time this season. The only other time Miami had a winning record was when it was 3-2 following a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Getting over the .500 mark isn’t the end goal, but it’s still considered an accomplishment for a team that was 7-13 through the first 20 games. Since then, the Heat has won 12 of 17 to get to this point.

Miami remains in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of the seventh-place Charlotte Hornets.

“Let’s just take off,” center Hassan Whiteside said, reacting to a reporter telling him Miami is now above .500. “I think it’s on defense. Defense is the key with us and that’s what’s really going to get us there. We’ve got a lot of defenders and that’s what’s going to be the key for us. We’re not a team that’s going to try to put up 130. And run back and forth, and spar with teams. We want to lock teams up in this modern NBA and try to keep teams close to under 100 or near like 104, 103.”

Friday’s win was especially encouraging because it came in a game that wasn’t played at the Heat’s pace. The contest was played with the teams averaging 103 possessions per 48 minutes, which is the fastest-paced game Miami has been a part of since its Dec. 8 win over the Clippers (that game was played at a pace of 106 possessions). A lot of that has to do with the Heat slowing things down recently, as it’s operated at the league’s fifth-slowest pace since Nov. 30 during this 12-5 stretch.

But Miami played at Washington’s pace Friday and won.

“Obviously, their speed, quickness, pace had us on our heels a little bit,” Spoelstra said of the Wizards. “But I saw some growth in our team tonight. This is a game possibly in the first few weeks of the season that we may have dropped and not have been able to manage that in the second half, and then find a way to get a double-digit lead and then take it to a win.”

2. Spoelstra continues to preach patience with guard Dion Waiters, and there’s a reason for that. What’s the reason? Waiters is going to have to work his way back into the Heat’s rotation after missing the past year due to ankle surgery.

In the first game Waiters was available following the year-long absence, he finished Wednesday’s win over the Cavaliers with seven points on 3-of-9 shooting and three assists in 11 minutes. But that was with sixth man Dwyane Wade out due to an illness.

In the second game Waiters was available, he didn’t play. With Wade back for Friday’s contest against the Wizards, Waiters was left out of the rotation.

“I’m thinking all big picture,” Spoelstra said of his decision to not play Waiters against Washington. “I don’t expect it to be easy. This is about winning right now. I have him fully on my mind, but we’ll be patient with it.”

Spoelstra used 10 players against Washington. Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside started, and Dwyane Wade, Tyler Johnson, Bam Adebayo, Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr. played off the bench. It’s pretty much the same rotation that’s been working for the Heat before Waiters returned. And yes, Wayne Ellington was a healthy scratch for the eighth time in the past 12 games.

This doesn’t mean Waiters won’t eventually be part of Miami’s rotation and even the starting lineup. But it’s just not happening immediately, especially with the Heat in the middle of its best stretch of the season.

3. Justise Winslow turned in one of the most efficient games of his career Friday. The Heat’s starting point guard (with Goran Dragic out after right knee surgery) finished with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting to go with a career-high 10 assists and just one turnover.

“As I’ve been playing the point guard role, I’ve been seeing opportunities to make some of these passes,” Winslow said. “But a big thing for us has been the turnovers, so I’ve been a little bit hesitant and just making more of the safer players, but today I was just reading the defense and taking what they gave me.

“The big fella [Whiteside] did a great job of sealing down low and those are really easy assists. I didn’t have to do much but just get him the ball and our catch-and-shoot package, that really gave me some easy ones, as well, so just staying aggressive, trying to look for my shots and playmake.”

It’s just a continuation of the best stretch of Winslow’s career, as he’s now averaging 14.8 points on 46.9 percent shooting and 5.1 assists in his past 13 games. And he’s gotten better with the ball in his hands recently, with 36 assists and 10 turnovers for a solid assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.6 over his past six games.

“I’m asking him to do a lot for this basketball team. There is a lot on his plate,” Spoelstra said of Winslow. “He’s playing a new position, trying to get us organized, trying to get us to our game, to our strengths and then find places where he can be aggressive. And then yes, of course, I’m still asking him to be near the top or at the top of our list on our defensive numbers and charts.”

4. It looks like Whiteside is slowly breaking out of his free-throw slump. The Heat’s starting center finished 3 of 5 from the foul line Friday, and is now 7 of 12 over the past four games after a 5-of-36 stretch from the charity stripe.

Plus, Whiteside accomplished something Friday he had not done in almost two months. The 7-footer went 2-for-2 from the foul line on the same possession for the first time since he did it during a Nov. 14 road win over the Nets.

Oh, and Whiteside also turned in a pretty good all-around performance against the Wizards. He finished with 21 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks in 30 minutes.

“He was our player of the game in the locker room,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside. “He just came out and set the tone with his force of play, really engaged. His communication is getting better each game. These are habits he’s intentionally working at in shootarounds and practices, team meetings. I love seeing the growth. Even at the end, [Washington] sped it up and went even quicker at the end. As a competitor, he wanted to be in there. But we shared a hug afterward. He’s just starting to get the whole deal now, which is good for us.”

5. The victory represented growth in a few areas the Heat is working to improve in. Spoelstra spoke before Friday’s game about two things that must be better moving forward, the Heat’s home record and its record against losing teams.

Miami’s win over Washington was a step in the right direction toward accomplishing both those goals, as the Heat improved to 9-11 at home and 13-10 against teams that currently own a losing record this season.

The Heat has actually been better in both areas recently. Since the start of December, Miami is 6-3 at home and 8-3 against teams with losing records. Pair that improvement with the Heat’s current 10-7 road mark, and it’s no surprise that it now has a winning record.

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.