It’s safe to say it. The sample size is big enough now. March is just the Heat’s month.
After Monday’s impressive road win against the Thunder, the Heat moved to 7-2 in March this season. Miami’s only losses this month have come against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, Toronto and Milwaukee.
But zoom out to examine the entirety of Erik Spoelstra’s 11-season tenure as the Heat’s head coach, and winning in March has become a trend. Miami has posted an eye-opening 111-59 record (.653 winning percentage) in March under Spoelstra, compared to a regular-season winning percentage of .580 in all other months.
What is it about this specific month late in the season before the playoffs begin in April that gets the Heat to play its best basketball? A lot of the players asked didn’t have an answer, but Dwyane Wade offered a theory.
“I think no matter what team we’ve had, I think the one thing that’s made us have success as an organization is just the consistency, the constant beating in the mind of this is how we got to do it, this is how we got to do it and never letting up,” Wade said, with the Heat continuing its four-game trip Wednesday against the Spurs. “A couple years ago when this team was 11-30, Spo didn’t let up. I know him, he didn’t let up. He continued to keep working the habits, working the game, making sure each player knew what their importance is and why they’re here. Then eventually no matter how stubborn you are, eventually you start getting it.
“I think sometimes it takes longer for certain teams. But I always feel the Miami Heat is always better toward the end for the most part than in the beginning because it’s not an easy system, it’s not an easy culture to get used to. It takes awhile to get used to everything.”
In recent seasons, the difference between March and the other months has been more noticeable. The Heat has recorded a 26-15 record in March and a 93-100 regular-season record in all other months since the start of 2016-17.
“You constantly try to improve during a season,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not just a seven-month schedule where you’re checking off games and going through it like a robot. Are you truly committed to that daily improvement? For better or worse, we will always emphasize that. We’re always trying to look at strides and see if individual players are getting better. If they’re not, how can we help? And then our team, the same way.”
A deeper look at the numbers shows Miami’s success in March isn’t hollow. The Heat has posted a top-seven net rating (a good indicator of how a team is playing on both ends of the court because it’s the difference between a team’s offensive and defensive ratings) in each of the past three seasons in March.
This season, the Heat entered Tuesday with the league’s third-best net rating behind only the Spurs (8-0 this month) and Rockets (7-1 this month entering Tuesday) in March. Miami has posted the top defensive rating this month, allowing 102.4 points per 100 possessions.
Wade said this recent span of games is “definitely” the Heat’s best stretch of the season.
“We’re just coherent. Everybody is on the same page,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “Our defense is way better. I don’t know why it takes so much time in the season, but finally. Even in the past few seasons, March was our month. Every time we played the best basketball, it was March. This year, it’s the same thing. It’s a great opportunity to even get higher in our game, especially if we make the playoffs, it’s going to help us a lot.”
The Heat’s push in March is definitely helping its playoff chances, as it holds on to the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot and looks to make a run at a few of the teams ahead of it.
After a Feb. 25 home loss to the Suns, FiveThirtyEight.com’s playoff predictions had the Heat with just a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number jumped to 48 percent after Miami’s win in Oklahoma City.
Still, the Heat has a tough road ahead with eight of its final 12 regular-season games coming on the road.
“What else do you want in this profession?,” Spoelstra said. “Do you want to be like the 10 or 12 teams that are playing for nothing right now, and their whole narrative is, ‘Hey, we’re playing with confidence. It’s easy. We’re building for next year.’ Or you can play for something where there’s a consequence. There’s a great joy to a win and there’s a lot of pain to a loss because there’s significance and meaning to these games.”
▪ The Heat announced Tuesday it has assigned guard Charles Cooke to its G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Miami signed Cooke to a 10-day contract Friday.
▪ Justise Winslow (right thigh bruise) and Rodney McGruder (left knee soreness) have been ruled out for Wednesday’s game against the Spurs.
It marks the third consecutive game Winslow has missed with his thigh injury, and the 10th game he’s missed this season. For McGruder, it’s the second game he’s missed with left knee soreness and the fourth game he’s missed this season due to injury or illness.