Barry Jackson

Here’s what has changed for Heat’s Johnson and Waiters recently. And a playoff update.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the further James Johnson and Dion Waiters distance themselves from significant medical procedures last year, the better they’re playing.

Both displayed improved explosiveness in the past week, and Johnson – in particular –said he feels the difference.

“Six weeks ago is not even close to where I’m at right now with my ability to do the things I was used to doing or capable of doing,” Johnson said, feeling the best he’s felt since sports hernia surgery last May. “It was patience -- at the time I didn’t understand -- but I do now. All the extra work, when I was resting and out, it has all come back full circle.”

Johnson scored 13 points in Saturday’s 113-108 win at Washington, his third double-figure scoring output in four games on this road trip.

Johnson, who rejoined the rotation amid Justise Winslow’s thigh injury after being a healthy scratch for seven games, said his renewed explosiveness was something of a surprise because “I didn’t know I was coming back with this much explosiveness. I felt good during my workouts, but those are workouts. You can have workout legs and jump out of the gym because it’s not real. In a game, you’re chasing people, you’re defending.

“I was sure I was going to be there mentally. It is working out that both are showing up well the last few games.”

The explosiveness is vital for Johnson because he’s at his best when he’s driving to the basket, as opposed to merely being a stand-still three-point shooter.

As for Waiters, he said he feels improvement – 14 months removed from January 2018 ankle surgery – but still isn’t at peak level.

“My explosion is still not where I want it to be,” he said after overcoming a pre-game illness (which required an IV) to score 19 points in 26 minutes against Washington. “I’ve still got to work on my body every day. Most important, I’ve got to come out and be aggressive, try to set the tone and get going.

“We’ve got a team with a lot of depth. For me, I’ve got to get going with that first unit. A lot of times, before we had D-Wade, I could ease my way because I knew the minutes [would be there]. But it’s different here. Today, I didn’t even play in the fourth. We’re so good I don’t mind sacrificing as long as we’re winning.”

Waiters had two excellent games on the trip, including an 18-point game Wednesday at San Antonio.

Erik Spoelstra sees the recent difference in both Waiters and Johnson.

“It’s better game rhythm, better game conditioning and team rhythm,” Spoelstra said. “It takes some time when you’ve been out. When you’re ambitious and you want things to happen immediately, team dynamics don’t necessarily work that way. Sometimes it takes rolling up the

sleeves and working through the tough moments. But they’re filling two important roles.”

PLAYOFF UPDATE

Detroit’s loss at Portland late Saturday means the Heat entered Sunday just 1.5 games behind the No. 6 Pistons and No. 7 Nets in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Heat, at 36-37, has a half game lead over No. 9 Orlando, which plays host to Philadelphia on Monday and then visits the Heat in a critical game on Tuesday.

For Miami, there is the potential for upward movement in the standings this week. Detroit’s next two games are difficult: Sunday at a Warriors team coming off an embarrassing blowout home loss to Dallas and Monday at Denver.

The Nets’ final eight games are difficult: at Portland, at Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, Toronto, at Milwaukee, at Indiana and then home to Miami.

Orlando’s closing schedule might be a bit easier than Miami’s, but the schedules aren’t dramatically different in difficulty.

Here’s my Sunday piece with Wizards people imploring Dwyane Wade not to retire and more on Bam Adebayo’s impressive growth.

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