Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Heat still searching for identity, but so is most of Eastern Conference

Backcourt mates Dwyane Wade, left, and Goran Dragic are still getting in sync as the Heat tries to find its identity.
Backcourt mates Dwyane Wade, left, and Goran Dragic are still getting in sync as the Heat tries to find its identity. pportal@elnuevoherald.com

It’s incorrect to claim that nothing has happened in the NBA this season. Plenty has. Kobe Bryant has announced his impending exit, to the relief of rims everywhere. Kristaps Porzingis has taken Manhattan from the Muppets. Stephen Curry has streaked through the sky from sea to sea. The Spurs have Spur’d as only the Spurs can, rampaging under the radar. Lance Stephenson has worn out another welcome.

But it’s fair to say that, for the Heat’s purposes, precious little has occurred of lasting significance when it comes to the East standings. Entering Tuesday’s NBA play, the Heat stood smack in the middle of the top 10 teams of the conference, 1.5 games behind top-seeded Cleveland and 1.5 games ahead of 10th-seeded Atlanta.

There are two ways to view this, depending on whether optimism or pessimism is your predilection. Either that the Heat, with a forgiving early schedule that was akin to bowling with bumpers, blew an easy opportunity to seize control. Or that the Heat, adjusting to new lineups and schemes, should be credited for staying so close while still sorting out some stubborn issues.

It became clear which attitude the Heat is adopting, while listening to Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Erik Spoelstra all recite virtually the same lines Monday night. Essentially, all cited Golden State and San Antonio as teams that have found their form, with Wade and Dragic adding Oklahoma City after its recent surge. And that’s it.

“Everybody else that’s fighting for the playoffs right now is trying to figure it out,” Spoelstra said. “So that consistency while you’re trying to find your identity, it’s tough. It’s competitive out there.”

It is. So competitive that entering Tuesday, Chicago had the longest active win streak in the East, at just three games. Several teams have had strong stretches, but not sustained them into double-digit wins, nothing close to what Golden State (24) has done out West. Cleveland’s longest win streak is eight, followed by Atlanta (seven), Indiana (six), Toronto and Orlando (five), Chicago and Charlotte and Detroit (four) and Miami and Boston (three).

Yes, the Knicks (four) and Bucks (four) have had longer win streaks than Miami, even as they currently sit 11th and 13th in the East. But the Bucks have also had three three-game losing streaks. The Knicks have had a pair of four-game losing streaks, and a three-game losing streak. Miami has had just one three-game losing streak, same as Chicago and Orlando and Charlotte and Cleveland. Atlanta has had two of those. So has Indiana. So has Toronto. Detroit has had a four-game losing streak.

That means Miami, for all the apparent inconsistency, has actually been among the least-volatile teams in the conference.

“We lost our three in a row, we won our last game [Sunday] night, and we’re still there,” Dragic said before a strong performance in Atlanta, even with a bandaged thumb and then a chipped tooth. “We just need to keep battling, and keep building those good habits, and sooner or later, some teams are going to go down, some teams are going to go up. We already proved it’s not going to be easy.”

Or, as Wade put it: “Right now, guys are figuring it out. You’ll see a team go on a three-game winning streak, go on a three-game losing streak. That’s where we’re at right now. If we can be the first team to crack that code, outside the ones who have already done it, you will give yourself a little breathing room.”

Plus, the Heat’s issues, while still obvious — three-point shooting, backcourt chemistry, limitations of a traditional lineup against small-ball — may be no more obstinate than those that counterparts are facing.

We’re just more studying Miami’s more closely.

But while Cleveland remains best-positioned with the imminent return of Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mozgov’s slippage is concerning. So, for Chicago, is an offense that has significantly, stunningly regressed after coach and lineup shuffling intended to propel it. So, for Atlanta, is the wayward outside shooting — and the sudden loss of spirit.

So both for Toronto and Detroit, is a poor assist ratio, with the ball stopping too often. So, for Indiana, is an overreliance on a single star, Paul George. So, for Boston, Charlotte and Orlando, is relative inexperience, which manifests itself in various ways. So, for Washington, is a leaky defense, especially against three-pointers.

And the Heat, for all its legitimate concerns, is still doing one thing as well as any of the aforementioned.

“Obviously, we’re not gonna score the ball like Golden State, but that doesn’t mean we can’t defend, and give us an opportunity to score the ball,” Wade said. “But for us, it’s all about defense. When we defend very well, when we’re active defensively and communicating, we can find ways to win. Every team is different, with their [offensive] identity. We’re still trying to find ours.”

In the meantime, flaws and all, Miami feels just fine about finding itself in the mix.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

Thursday: Heat at Nets

When, where: 7:30 p.m., Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

TV, radio: SUN; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 63-45.

Scouting report: There are two teams that look like they have no shot at the East playoffs, and the Nets are one. Brooklyn relies on Brook Lopez for offense, now that Joe Johnson is posting his lowest scoring average in more than a decade. Tyler Johnson (strained left shoulder) might return for Miami, depending on how he feels after the shootaround.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments