CHICAGO — The Miami Heat should not be this good. The amount, and severity, of injuries that have hit their roster and the veteran pieces they’ve lost for nothing should have prevented that.
But with about a month to go in the regular season, the Heat are more than holding their own in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
This, despite Chris Bosh’s blood clots making his future a complete unknown. This, despite highly paid point guard Goran Dragic only recently finding his rhythm after a disappointing first half of the season. This, despite trades earlier in the season of longtime rotation staples Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen.
Somehow, they’ve found a way, and Friday’s 118-96 blowout win over the Chicago Bulls was another instance of the Heat patching together production outside of the places you’d expect them to find it.
On Friday night, the Heat’s second-leading scorer was Josh Richardson (22 points), a little-known rookie point guard drafted in the second round. Seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson (15 points) came to the Heat on the buyout market and entered the contest as a plus-71 in the plus-minus category since joining, per ESPN.com.
Enigmatic center Hassan Whiteside, who had 13 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks on Friday, is a castoff of the D-League and various international leagues who found new basketball life after the Heat gave him a chance in the middle of the 2014-15 season. Even Miami's starting center, Amar’e Stoudemire, was a low-cost risk coming over as a reclamation project following years of injury. But he's still finding ways to be productive.
“They’ve earned every minute they’ve gotten,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday of the disparate parts on his roster. “That’s the deal. They’re not being gifted anything right now. We have capable veteran players. [The reserves] are starting to build some confidence and some camaraderie offensively. On that end, keeping the game simple, J-Rich was able to knock down some shots and guys were happy for him. Hassan is doing a good job collapsing the defense for his rolls to the rim.”
Richardson in particular has been a pleasant surprise for the Heat, who have seen no shortage of turnover at that position this season. They dealt Chalmers to the Memphis Grizzlies in November and lost his replacement, Beno Udrih, to a season-ending injury along with promising second-year prospect Tyler Johnson. Richardson has seen his role increase and helped to steady Miami’s second unit.
“I think the biggest thing with his confidence right now is, when your veteran players start to have confidence in you, it goes to a different level,” Spoelstra said of Richardson. “The time is now. We don’t have time to develop. The time is to play and produce and take advantage of every opportunity. You can see the veteran players really enjoying him playing well. How can you not gain confidence when you have such decorated veterans that are rooting for you and wanting you to play aggressively?”
With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the Heat are fourth out East, just half a game behind the Boston Celtics in third place. With the teams so tightly clustered together, nobody has any real cushion, and every win will count for positioning. Despite their season full of adversity, the Heat are as well-positioned as anyone to stay hot the rest of the way and make a serious run.
|Eastern Conference Standings|
|1. Cleveland Cavaliers||46||18||-|
|2. Toronto Raptors||43||20||2.5|
|3. Boston Celtics||39||27||8|
|4. Miami Heat||38||27||8.5|
|5. Charlotte Hornets||36||28||10|
|6. Atlanta Hawks||36||29||10.5|
|7. Indiana Pacers||34||30||12|
|8. Detroit Pistons||33||32||13.5|
“This time of year, you try to get what you can,” Dwyane Wade said. “That’s why you play team basketball. Sometimes, you play the individual sport, you just don’t have it. It was great to see Luol [Deng] have another big game (19 points, six rebounds, four steals), Goran to be so aggressive. And then the rook [Richardson] to come off the bench and continue to play well, continue to be aggressive. He’s growing up in front of our eyes.”
The Heat need all the production they can get from their role players, with Bosh’s status hanging over the team like a dark cloud. More than most other organizations, the Heat have established the kind of culture that allows those younger, unproven players to thrive.
“All of us do a good job of trying to instill confidence into our young guys,” Wade said. “Those guys can play basketball, and we need them. We’re going to need them to be successful. Josh is putting the work in on his game, earlier in the year he was struggling from three-point range but now he’s like a knockdown shooter. But that’s all the work that he’s put in.
"As veteran guys, you just give them the confidence. You get on them when they’re not doing what they need to do, and they’ve just done a good job of accepting it and trying to correct their wrongs. It’s great to have the young guys playing well down the stretch and into the playoffs.”