The Miami Heat have forced their fans to endure a roller-coaster ride this season. Some nights, they've dominated the opposition, showing what made them a preseason candidate to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. Other times, the pieces haven't mixed together, leading the team to endure a seemingly inexplicable loss.
Friday night fit into the former category, as the Heat trounced the Dallas Mavericks 106-82 to improve to 19-13 on the year. Whether the two-way success lasts is a question for another time, but the dominant showing did put on display exactly what this squad can accomplish on any given night.
Almost across the board, the important pieces excelled.
Luol Deng didn't contribute much, but he did drain one big first-quarter triple off a Goran Dragic feed that helped spark a massive Miami run. Chris Bosh was uncharacteristically uninvolved, but it's not like the team needed much more than his 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
And that's where the qualifiers end.
Dwyane Wade began the night on the bench, fighting off an illness that left him unsure he'd make it onto the court. He eventually did play, and his 2016 debut came midway through the second quarter to the tune of raucous cheers from the partisan crowd at AmericanAirlines Arena. From that point forward, he made his impact felt whenever he wasn't wearing warm-ups.
The 2-guard finished with 10 points, two rebounds and seven assists, and it's hard to tell when he was most impressive. Was it during that second period, when he managed to record five dimes? Was it during the third quarter, when he was drilling turnaround jumpers, such as the one below, and torturing the overmatched Mavericks defense?
But despite the highlight-worthy nature of his play, Wade still wasn't the most impressive member of the Miami backcourt.
"We had to get him going," Chris Bosh told Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley at the end of 2015 about Goran Dragic, who had struggled tremendously throughout the opening salvo of his first full season in a Heat uniform. "[Playing faster] was a huge, huge part of it. We had to kind of take the shackles off him a little bit."
The shackles were fully removed Friday night.
Dragic was in constant attack mode, finishing at the rim like he was in the middle of his breakthrough 2013-14 campaign with the Phoenix Suns. He wound up recording 15 points, four rebounds, seven assists and three steals, but the numbers weren't nearly as important as the feel. For the first time in a while, it felt like he was in full control of the Miami offense, refusing to turn the ball over as he made things happen for both himself and his teammates.
Could this be what sparks a turnaround in his trajectory with the Heat?
Based on total points added (TPA, which is explained in full throughout this article), he's been on a constant decline since his fantastic season in the desert, struggling to fit in with his new squad:
This season's mark is admittedly prorated to a full year, but there's still plenty of time to get his game trending in the right direction. If he continues to handle the ball like he did against the Mavs—preferably without picking up his dribble against double-teams quite as often—he might soon break back into the positives.
However, Miami's success went beyond the backcourt. Glossing over the important contributions from Gerald Green (19 points off the bench, thanks to an 8-of-13 shooting performance), we have to give some love to Hassan Whiteside. After all, he did a lot to improve his All-Star ratings:
Dallas never figured out an answer for the physical center who ended up posting 25 points and 19 rebounds. Instead, it was thoroughly destroyed by his presence on both ends.
In the first half, Whiteside was a defensive machine. Even without blocking a single shot, he managed to keep nearly every Maverick out of the paint, altering shots and forcing the opposition to settle for heavily contested perimeter jumpers. He looked more comfortable stepping away from the paint and wasn't goaded into any ill-advised rejection attempts—something that has kept him from living up to his full potential in the past.
And even still, he was more impressive on offense.
Displaying perfect timing and soft hands in pick-and-roll situations, Whiteside managed to produce thunderous dunks like the one below, which served as the capstone on his 18-point, 13-rebound first half:
But Whiteside didn't just feast on easy slams. Instead, he gave the Mavericks fits with his deft moves on the blocks and his surprising success on mid-range jumpers.
NBA.com's statistical databases reveal that Whiteside entered the Heat's victory over Dallas scoring just 0.67 points per possession in post-up situations, which left him in the 15.8 percentile. But you wouldn't know it on Friday night, as he dazzled opponents with jump-hooks and quick feet that allowed him to make multiple moves in quick succession.
Additionally, the big man was shooting only 30.4 percent from 10 to 16 feet and 25 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point arc before this contest. But that wasn't the case in the first quarter, when he drained a 15-footer and an 18-footer on back-to-back possessions:
If the Heat are to realize the full extent of what they can do on offense, Whiteside must build upon this performance. Talented as he may be, his presence can be detrimental when he clogs the paint. Throw in a few post-up buckets while draining some jumpers, and that quickly changes.
This 24-point win may only be a blip on the radar. It may be a precursor to another losing streak as the Heat continue to play frustratingly inconsistent basketball.
All the same, it confirms what we already should've known: When everything is clicking in Miami, this is a deadly bunch.
Washington Wizards Overcome Tough Orlando Magic Defense
The Orlando Magic have not been particularly easy to score on this season, shutting down opponents to the tune of a 102.5 defensive rating that leaves them behind only seven other teams. But after showcasing their dominance in late November and early December, things have gone a bit awry.
Early in the Washington Wizards' 103-91 victory to open the new year, it appeared as if the Magic were reverting back to their deadly tricks on defense. The Wizards could only muster up 24 points in front of their hometown faithful during the first quarter, then 24 during the second...and another 24 throughout the third.
However, they broke the tie during the final period, exploding for a 31-spot that left them with plenty of breathing room as the clock ticked down toward triple zeroes. And though Otto Porter submitted a fantastic line (20 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and four steals), it was John Wall who led the charge, using his speed to act like a blur against the Magic defense.
When this dynamic point guard is feeling it, no defender can stay in front of him. Put a plodding center in his way, and the results are either going to be pretty if you're a Washington fan, or ugly if you're not.
You have to feel a bit for Nikola Vucevic here:
When the final buzzer sounded, Wall had recorded a gaudy line of his own: 24 points (on 10-of-19 shooting from the field), two boards, 13 assists, two steals and a block. Despite his perimeter jumper letting him down, he still tortured the Orlando backcourt while continuing to rebound from his tough start to the year.
Ever since the calendars flipped to December, Wall has been much more, well, Wall-like. ESPN Stats & Info provided more details:
John Wall: 8 straight games with double-digit assists Since Dec. 1: 22.6 PPG, 11.8 APG Before Dec. 1: 16.1 PPG, 7.6 APG— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2016
This is the version of the point guard the Wizards desperately need as they fight through Bradley Beal's prolonged absence in a tight Eastern race. They need the floor general who can call his own number but still keep his head up and look for the kick-out passes that so often hit teammates right between the numbers.
Basically, they need the MVP-caliber version of Wall, which they got when it counted Friday night.
If he keeps this up, Washington, now 15-16 on the season, won't spend much more time below .500.
The Kyle Lowry Takeover Tour Continues
Before leading the charge in a come-from-behind victory over the Charlotte Hornets, Kyle Lowry was already in the middle of a special season. Driven by his svelte frame and quicker first step, he's made a legitimate case for receiving some Most Improved Player consideration, and that's despite already playing at a high level in 2014-15.
According to Basketball-Reference.com's MVP Award Tracker, which is based on historical results and current statistics, he has the ninth-best odds to win the league's most prestigious individual award, trailing only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, LeBron James, Blake Griffin and James Harden.
Through Friday night's first three quarters in Air Canada Centre, that wasn't believable.
Lowry couldn't help the Toronto Raptors avoid an eight-point deficit, and he recorded only eight points on 3-of-10 shooting to go along with his four rebounds and eight assists. His jumper had gone missing, and he'd failed to leave the same imprint on the contest that has become customary in 2015-16.
However, that quickly changed.
Lowry exploded for 10 points, one rebound, three assists and a steal during the final 12 minutes, knocking down three of his six attempts from the field—including a 2-of-3 showing from downtown—and helping his Raptors outscore the Hornets 30-12.
It was the point guard who scored five points in a row after the game was knotted up at 84. And it was Lowry contributing three points—which would prove to be the decisive ones—and an assist to break a subsequent tie at 94. Then, to seal the deal, he came up with the crucial theft:
Lowry may not have produced a final line that will help him move up in the race for MVP. But even more importantly, he came through when it mattered most, helping the Raptors keep pace with the ridiculous number of teams competing for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers Win, Because Somebody Had to Win
If you wanted to watch a good basketball game, the 93-84 battle between the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers probably wasn't a pressing priority. At various points, the putridity of both pushovers gave the illusion of it being a competitive contest, but this was an NBA game mostly because humans dribbled an orange sphere up and down a court while a shot clock ticked down from 24 seconds.
No one should have held high expectations, given the ignominious record they almost set heading into the contest:
76ers (3-31), Lakers (6-27) have combined .134 win pct, 3rd-lowest entering any game in NBA history (min. 30 games each) - via @EliasSports— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2016
Still, the Lakers get credit for winning by a solid amount after pulling away during the fourth quarter. They managed to keep the Sixers from knocking down a ridiculous number of wide-open jumpers, so in that sense, they "held" them to 36.9 percent shooting on the night.
By comparison, their 37.9 percent clip seems...incredible? Impressive? Let's just go with: better.
To be fair, there were some highlights.
For example, we had scrappy hustle plays from Nerlens Noel:
Perhaps even more impressively, D'Angelo Russell paid homage to the Showtime Lakers with a no-look transition feed to Julius Randle:
Lou Williams, Randle and Larry Nance Jr. all deserve credit for putting together solid outings, but the truly notable aspect here involves the Lakers as a whole. They've now won back-to-back games for the first time since Feb. 25 and Feb. 27, when they beat the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.
Of course, we'd also be pointing out that such a streak ended if the Sixers had emerged victoriously. Their dry spell continues now that they blew a chance to win two straight for the first time since March 18 and March 20.
In a season that's seen losses pile up so quickly for Los Angeles, it's the little things that count.
Improving Player of the Night: Bobby Portis
The incumbent bigs in Chicago have to be holding their collective breath, awaiting their fates as Bobby Portis continues to carve out a larger role in the rotation. Increased playing time certainly hasn't been an issue for the rookie, who put together another stellar performance Friday night in a 108-81 victory over the New York Knicks.
Ever since Christmas Day, he's just gotten better and better:
"With [Pau] Gasol, [Joakim] Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic all factoring into the equation, the Bulls may have viewed the 20-year-old Portis as a long-term investment," Buckley wrote for Bleacher Report in December while calling Portis one of the unheralded players who will have a monster 2016. "But he's proving he can be both their present and future."
Now that he's moved into the rotation, he apparently isn't dropping out anytime soon. Per Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg won't be taking away the recently earned minutes:
Hoiberg says Portis has earned his spot in the rotation moving forward. He's not going anywhere.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 2, 2016
Nor should he.
While thriving on the glass, Portis has shown every offensive tool the Bulls could possibly want. Against the Knicks, he flaunted them again, finishing around the rim with aplomb, knocking down mid-range jumpers and thriving in the post.
Scarily enough, this is only the beginning for the 20-year-old power forward.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Jan. 1.