Heat Check

After rough start, red-hot Heat still believes it can make playoffs

Hassan Whiteside had a rough night against the Pistons Saturday, but believes the Heat, winners of seven consecutive games, can make a run at the playoffs.
Hassan Whiteside had a rough night against the Pistons Saturday, but believes the Heat, winners of seven consecutive games, can make a run at the playoffs. pportal@miamiherald.com

The last time the Miami Heat had a winning streak of at least eight games their fans weren’t worried about how a long string of victories was going to affect the number of ping-pong balls the team was going to have in the upcoming NBA lottery.

No, they were simply enjoying what turned out to be the final few months of the Big Three. It was early March 2014 and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were on their way toward securing the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and eventually a fourth consecutive Finals berth.

Times have certainly changed over at 601 Biscayne Boulevard. But the expectations for the guys wearing the uniforms hasn’t.

For all the discussion on the outside about Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. and Kansas’ Josh Jackson, the players responsible for this season’s horrid 11-30 first half start have never stopped believing in each other or started pointing fingers.

In fact, they still believe – even at 18-30 following Saturday’s win over Detroit which stretched the NBA’s longest active winning streak to seven games – that making the playoffs is attainable.

“The playoffs has always been the goal,” center Hassan Whiteside said Saturday after a throng of reporters had left his locker to go interview the red-hot shooting Wayne Ellington, who had 19 points and five three-pointers in Saturday’s win including three in a row in the fourth quarter.

“We never threw this season away,” Whiteside continued. “We were just like ‘Hey man, we got injuries. But we’re not going to make excuses.’ We’re not a bad team. Even [Golden State Warriors coach] Steve Kerr was saying we’re better than our record – even after they beat us [in the first meeting]. I’ve always said, ‘We’re better than our record.’ ”

It may not be the excuse they want to use, but the Heat went into Saturday’s game with a roster of players who had combined to miss a league-leading 191 games because of injury or illness. That number grew to 196 games after Chris Bosh, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Josh McRoberts and Tyler Johnson didn’t play again on Saturday.

Another number that grew: the number of starts guards Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic have made together. It’s now at 20 games after Waiters missed 20 games with a groin injury and Dragic missed a handful of others with a variety of injuries.

The Heat’s record in those 20 games: 11-9.

“Come on man – we’d be talking a whole different language right now,” Whiteside said of what the Heat’s record might be had Dragic and Waiters been healthy and available to start side by side all season long.

“We’re just trying to recover from the damage.”

Damage which on the surface appears insurmountable.

Miami went into Saturday’s game with a 2.7 percent chance of making the postseason and projected to finish with only 33 wins.

Even with this seven-game winning streak, the Heat hasn’t moved out of 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

But the gap has closed in the race for the eighth and final seed. With 34 games left, the Heat stands only five games out of the final two spots in the East with Chicago (23-25) and Charlotte (23-25) currently occupying those slots.

One thing in the Heat’s favor: the schedule. Miami has already wrapped up all but one of its head-to-head meetings with the seven best teams in the Western Conference. The last of those tough games: a trip to Houston right before the All-Star break on Feb. 15. Miami already beat those same Rockets to start this seven-game winning streak.

The rest of the Heat’s schedule features only 13 games against teams currently .500 or better. Miami also plays 18 of its final 34 games at home.

While teams like the Bulls are pointing fingers and falling apart, this Heat team is only growing tighter and tighter with every victory. Whiteside, battling a sprained right foot, has felt that love maybe better than anyone else lately.

After his rough first half Saturday against Detroit’s Andre Drummond, who had a 17-point, 20-rebound performance, Whiteside’s teammates continued to pick him up with words of encouragement. And when he reeled off five points in a row in the fourth quarter, every single one of his teammates ran to pat him on the back and encourage him after the Pistons called timeout.

“I told them the first half it felt like every rebound was going away from me and straight to Drummond. It just took some crazy bounces,” Whiteside said. “Them guys stayed with me and said ‘You’re going to get ‘em, they’re going to come to you.’ I got me a couple offensive rebounds down the stretch. I think it really hyped the guys up.

“These guys are some of the best teammates I’ve had. The first half was top three worst first halves I’ve ever had in my basketball career. Not NBA career – by far the worst I’ve ever had. Guys are still saying ‘Hassan, you’re going to get it.’ That’s the kind of guys these guys are.”

It’s a team, Dragic said, that is good enough to finish this season strong and make a run at the playoffs. It’s why, he admitted, he’s already begun looking at the standings after every game, taking note of who in front of the Heat has won and lost.

“Everybody wants to play in the playoffs,” Dragic said. “The best basketball is in the playoffs. Of course, we’re in a little ditch [right now]. But we’re climbing up.

“Seven [wins] in a row. Brooklyn is coming here to our home [Monday]. It’s a must win for us. But it’s not going to be easy. We need to come out strong and protect our home court. We know how the Brooklyn game went a few days ago. If we’re ready from the start, we’re not going to have problems with that team.”