Greg Cote

Recent surge makes Heat ‘buyers’ as deadline nears while facing LeBron in playoffs grows possible

The Heat’s new realistic goal: A No. 8 seed or perhaps No. 7, either of which but especially the eight could put the Heat squarely on a path to meet LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Heat’s new realistic goal: A No. 8 seed or perhaps No. 7, either of which but especially the eight could put the Heat squarely on a path to meet LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. AP

The Heat’s unexpected surge the second half of this NBA season has rescued a team swirling down the commode and given it an unspoken yet pretty clear purpose:

Not just the playoffs. No.

LeBron James in the playoffs.

This is what that 13-game winning streak – longest in league history by a team with a losing record – has done for the Heat and its fans. Monday night’s home loss to Orlando, Miami’s second straight, has dampened but not changed that.

Those 13 wins in a row has made 2016-17 matter. Made every game count. Made the next two months interesting. And it has changed the front-office thinking as the Feb. 23 league trade deadline looms.

The Heat are now “buyers, not sellers,” a high-level club executive said Monday before the loss. The official said the club is looking at a half-dozen or so players that interest Miami. One reportedly is Orlando power-forward Serge Ibaka, a pending free-agent.

Miami might have to part with a young bargaining chip such as Justise Winslow. I’d do it. I’d consider only Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside beyond trade discussion. This franchise prides itself on being competitive even in off years, in transitional seasons, and Miami is too close to the playoffs now to do anything but strengthen itself in the short term.

Where the Heat is from where it had been is mindful of a few months earlier when the Dolphins once were 1-4, beached and gasping, before running off six consecutive victories and making the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

When the Heat’s record sat stinking at 11-30 you were dreaming of reasons to not doze off and the best you could imagine was the draft lottery, a lucky spray of ping-pong balls and a high pick. But what a dicey thing to rest hopes on, considering Pat Riley famously disdains the draft as a roster builder and that the Heat has pretty much gone hitless on first round picks since Dwyane Wade in 2003 (with benefit of doubt and an “incomplete” grade still for Winslow).

Now, though, at 24-31 entering Monday’s game in the final home date before the All-Star break and before the trade deadline, Miami very much is back in the playoff race, narrowly off pace.

The new realistic goal: A No. 8 seed or perhaps No. 7, either of which but especially the eight could put the Heat squarely on a path to meet LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.

This very topic, of course, gets the I-just-bit-a-lemon look from coach Erik Spoelstra, whose blinders-on focus does not look ahead a single game, let alone two months to the playoffs. And let alone to a maybe-rendezvous with LeBron.

The trade deadline and inherent speculation is annoying enough to a coach.

“We only bring it up [to the team] from the standpoint of , ‘Buckle up,’” Spoelstra said before Monday’s game. “Try to stay away from news outlets and social media because you just get caught in crazy rabbit holes. They are all distractions. We have something pretty good going on right now. That’s the focus.”

The team won’t look ahead. But I will!

It would be the first time Miami faced LeBron in the postseason since he left, torching bridges behind him, in 2014. We’d be assured at least two home playoff games vs. the player we still hate to love and love to hate.

Cleveland would be a huge series favorite but, guaranteed, Miami would not be the first-round opponent LeBron would prefer, both because of the turnaround Spoelstra has engineered and the emotional factor.

The Cavs are not the powerhouse that won the NBA title over Golden State last year. They are barely staving off Boston for the Eastern Conference lead. They have been erratic enough that LeBron went public with his frustration.

Meanwhile the Heat’s turnaround, though eased by a generally soft schedule, has included take-notice victories over James Harden’s Houston, the mighty Warriors, at Chicago and over Atlanta.

Goran Dragic has begun to be the all-star-caliber player the franchise dreamed he’d be. Hassan Whiteside is the double-double machine they’re paying him (big) to be. Dion Waiters has shown flashes of why he was the draft’s fourth overall pick in 2012. James Johnson has been a productive, versatile revelation off the bench – surely a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

The Heat we have been (mostly) seeing since mid-January has a chance to surprise anybody including LeBron in the first round.

That is why the notion Miami might have been better off to keep losing and bank on the lottery was absurd all along, literally self-defeating. Tanking in the NBA buys no assurances.

What that 13-game winning streak buys for South Florida and Heat fans is two more months of possibility, of it-could-happen hope of the playoffs and especially of you-know-who in the first round.

And would anything short of another NBA championship please Heat fans – oh, and Riley – more than knocking LeBron from the playoffs? At least there could be a chance of that now. Not a likelihood, no. No. But a chance.

Imagine: That happens. Miami sticks Mr. James with the Jordan crying-face meme. (Crazy. It would be about as shocking as an 11-30 team winning 13 games in a row). Then soon after that, Jeffrey Loria makes good on all the reports and officially sells the Marlins.

It would be the ultimate double villain purge for Miami sports.

Dare we dream that high?

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