The Miami Heat won't put together another 13-game winning streak between now and the end of the season, but the underlying qualities that produced that run remain.
And so should our faith in Miami.
The Heat started their remarkable surge by beating the Houston Rockets on Jan. 17. In defeating that same Rockets club by a final score of 117-109 on Wednesday at Toyota Center, they did more than put their post-streak two-game slide behind them.
Dion Waiters stayed hot, piling up 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in 36 minutes. Goran Dragic added 21 points and five dimes, while Hassan Whiteside controlled the middle with 23 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
It was the exact combination of backcourt production and interior excellence that triggered the Heat's scorching stretch.
Perhaps most telling, Tyler Johnson proved that even if the Heat's best play may be behind them, the maximum effort that fueled it is here to stay:
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Miami's run was difficult to process as it was happening. But in retrospect, the driving forces are clearer.
During the 13-game streak, the Heat allowed just 99.9 points per 100 possessions, a figure bested only by the San Antonio Spurs during that span. Toss in the league's fifth-best rebound rate and third-highest effective field-goal percentage, and you've got your recipe for a four-week unbeaten run.
The Heat drilled a league-leading 42 percent of their triples during the streak, as Dragic and Waiters both shot over 50 percent from deep on just over nine combined attempts per game.
You don't have to buy Miami as the league's second-best defense or expect Waiters and Dragic to keep making half their threes to believe the run was something more than an anomaly. All you have to do is recognize the biggest sources of success during that period are mostly sustainable.
The defense isn't going to continue allowing under one point per possession. That's historically elite stopping power, and no club is below 101 overall this year. But the Heat are the sixth-best defense in the NBA (104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), and it's fair to expect a top-five performance from here on—both because Miami's personnel is capable and because head coach Erik Spoelstra won't stand for anything less.
"Just get back to work. This league is tough," Spoelstra told Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel before Miami limited the Rockets to 41.4 percent shooting on Wednesday. "We had been defending really well, but just because you have some success with that doesn't guarantee it's going to continue constantly."
Spoelstra's right: Nothing's certain. But it's a lot easier to have faith in a consistent defense with standards and a track record like his.
Expecting Waiters to maintain his level of play might make some uncomfortable, but keep in mind he's young enough (25) for this to be a legitimate leap. He's played harder this year than ever before, and his ability to create his own shots will always give him a chance to score. Why can't he sustain most of the gains he's made?
Dragic is an even easier sell because he's done this before.
Though trades and injuries make it seem like this happened eons ago, Dragic isn't that far removed from All-NBA-caliber production with the Phoenix Suns—production that looks an awful lot like what he's doing right now.
|Goran Dragic Is Familiar|
|Season||Points||Rebounds||Assists||FG% / 3FG%|
|2013-14||20.3||3.2||5.9||50.5 / 40.8|
|2016-17||20.3||3.9||6.2||48.5 / 42.6|
Dragic isn't going to hit 53.8 percent of his triples like he did when leading Miami to 13 straight wins, but his NBA resume suggests his overall production this year is legitimate.
Stepping back, there's a macro reason to trust in Miami's continued success: The Heat have played themselves into a situation where failure's no longer helpful—or easy. Remember, this was a team ticketed for the tank just a few weeks ago. Bottoming out and securing a top-five pick seemed like the obvious move, and had Miami gone that route, nobody would have found fault.
But now, even though the Heat aren't technically that far from getting back into the bottom five—they're only four-and-a-half games out of second-to-last in the East—several other teams have far clearer incentives to mail in the season. Just to name a few, the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans are in greater need of a high pick. And no amount of deliberate losing could result in the Heat's finishing below the Nets.
That's seven teams almost guaranteed to tank/fail harder than the Heat—even if Miami were trying to lose. So there's less sense in a race to the bottom if all it yields, optimistically, is a shot at the No. 8 pick in June's draft. Considering the Heat are two games out of the eighth playoff spot, and four-and-a-half out of sixth if you want to get ridiculous, it's easy to see the better path.
Plus, the excitement created by Miami's out-of-nowhere run is difficult to squash. And though there are probably still fans upset by the Heat's failure to fail, the idea of packing it in now, after such a fun stretch, feels a little...wrong.
You can't just forget what things like this felt like.
And hey, even if the Heat always have success wooing free agents regardless of record, sustaining this level of play can only make them more appealing. In lieu of securing a lottery ticket by losing, Miami has spent the last few weeks advertising a culture of defense, professionalism and compete-against-anyone moxie.
If you're a star on the market, you're interested in the Heat by default. But if you can sign on with a club where everyone else is already doing the dirty work, aren't you even more intrigued?
The Heat aren't 13-wins-in-a-row good, but they've done enough to earn a buy-in from us the rest of the way.
Please Send Help
Terrence Ross had better be really, really, really good.
I mean, how else are the Orlando Magic going to avoid results like Wednesday's 107-79 dismantling by the San Antonio Spurs in the future?
Realistically, of course, Ross isn't a savior. He (and the pick the Magic got from the Toronto Raptors) is a decent return for the sunk cost that was Serge Ibaka, an ill-advised rental by an organization foolishly pursuing short-term success. On a reasonable contract, Ross should only be expected to provide solid rotation minutes and occasional crowd-pleasing highlight dunks.
It's not like the standards are high. Orlando got 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting from its starting backcourt of C.J. Watson and Evan Fournier against the Spurs.
And, yeah, it got ugly early at Amway Center.
Credit the Magic for moving on from a bad deal, and don't overlook the opportunity Ibaka's exit created. Aaron Gordon is going to play more power forward now, which basically everyone has been clamoring for all season.
But don't expect Ross to save a lost campaign.
LeBron James Seems OK
Kevin Love's knee surgery, which will cost him six weeks, is mostly significant for the way it puts yet another burden on the already overloaded shoulders of LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers are nowhere close to contention if their best player isn't healthy and/or available in the postseason, and James' consistently high minute totals (and offensive responsibilities) are a real cause for alarm.
Except James doesn't seem bothered.
"I'll rest when I retire," James told reporters. "As long as I'm in the lineup, we've got a chance."
Very true, LeBron. And very easy to illustrate with sequences like this:
James finished with 31 points, five rebounds and four assists on 12-of-17 shooting in 32 minutes as the Cavs downed the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena by a final of 113-104.
I'm not sure if it's time to take the Spurs approach to James' durability, which basically means we have to stop expecting the wheels to fall off because they never will, but I think we're getting close.
You Don't Know True Pain
That's what I imagine the Charlotte Hornets told the Toronto Raptors just before scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter Wednesday. It was a putrid output from a decaying team that ran its record to 5-17 since Jan. 1.
This latest defeat, a 90-85 final at the Air Canada Centre, came after the Hornets had built a lead of as many as 17 points.
Toronto has had plenty of struggles lately too, as its 3-5 mark in February (including this win) has made once-realistic thoughts of earning the top seed in the conference seem ridiculous.
"Right now, we're a way below .500 team," Kyle Lowry told reporters before the contest. "We're playing really bad basketball. It's crazy right now."
There's a difference between playing below potential and disintegrating, and the Hornets have been doing a bang-up job of the latter.
On the positive side, Frank Kaminsky scored 27 points.
On the negative, this:
Isaiah Thomas Is Inevitable
For a long time, there were only three true inevitabilities in the world: death, taxes and the reference to "death and taxes" in statements like this.
We can now add a fourth* entry to the list: Isaiah Thomas scoring 20 points.
The Boston Celtics got 33 points from their All-Star guard in a 116-108 win against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday at TD Garden, and they've now won 11 of their last 12 games. Knock the guy's defense all you want; reliable scoring like that is hard to find.
*Sorry, there are actually five inevitabilities. The fifth is my linking to this clip whenever the word "inevitability" arises in conversation. Apologies for the error.
Now That's How You Tank
Stop me if you've heard this before, but it'd be a good idea for the Los Angeles Lakers to lose. A lot.
Their 2017 first-rounder belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside the top three, which made Wednesday's meeting with the Phoenix Suns doubly meaningful. Every loss counts, but saddling the Suns with another win would help the Lakers get closer to falling behind Phoenix in the standings.
The Lakers gagged their way through a 15-point first quarter that resulted in a 17-point deficit before the second period even began. From there, things only got worse (which in this case means better). L.A. ultimately lost 137-101 at Talking Stick Resort Arena and is now just a half-game behind the Suns for the second-best lottery odds.
If anything, the Lakers' effort felt like overkill.
But with two first-rounders at stake—that's the other thing; if the Lakers convey their first-rounder this year, they also lose their 2019 first-rounder to the Magic—better safe than sorry.
The Basketball Gods Are Real...and Vengeful
Neither Mason Plumlee nor Nikola Jokic can guard power forwards, and we've watched all season as the Denver Nuggets fail to reach their potential with two big men on the floor. But Nuggets head coach Mike Malone started Plumlee alongside Jokic against the Minnesota Timberwolves anyway.
Maybe it was in response to the Wolves' two-big lineup or maybe Malone wanted to throw Plumlee a bone by putting him in the first unit in his debut. Either way, it was a bad call—one that was easy to see coming.
And because there is a cosmic justice in the NBA, Jokic was punished for Malone's sins.
It goes deeper:
Yeah, or maybe Denver was paying a divine penance.
Coming off a remarkable win against the Golden State Warriors on Monday in which Jokic notched a triple-double and a spaced floor resulted in a record-tying 24 made triples, the Nuggets couldn't beat the lowly Wolves, falling 112-99 at the Pepsi Center.
This is on you, Malone. Plumlee's a backup. Figure it out.
Time Is Relative
Among the many great inequities born of the Golden State Warriors' superior talent, the most annoying for opponents is probably this: The Dubs need about five good minutes to crush you.
You have to play the whole game without blinking, whereas the Warriors get to muck around for as long as they want until shifting into their own proprietary extra gear.
Case in point: a 22-0 third-quarter run that incinerated the Sacramento Kings, turning a three-point halftime deficit into a 24-point lead heading into the fourth period. It was a study in controlled demolition.
Klay Thompson piled up 17 of his game-high 35 points in the third as Golden State forced turnovers and got whatever it wanted on the other end—particularly in transition against a bewildered and demoralized Kings team. The final fast-break point discrepancy favored the Warriors, 38-9, on their way to the 109-86 victory at Oracle Arena.
Golden State will slip occasionally, as a team with little to prove in the regular season is wont to do. But when all it takes is a short burst to regain balance and restore order, it feels a little unfair.
Wednesday's Final Scores
- San Antonio Spurs 107, Orlando Magic 79
- Cleveland Cavaliers 113, Indiana Pacers 104
- Boston Celtics 116, Philadelphia 76ers 108
- Toronto Raptors 90, Charlotte Hornets 85
- Milwaukee Bucks 129, Brooklyn Nets 125
- Detroit Pistons 98, Dallas Mavericks 91
- Miami Heat 117, Houston Rockets 109
- New Orleans Pelicans 95, Memphis Grizzlies 91
- Phoenix Suns 137, Los Angeles Lakers 101
- Utah Jazz 111, Portland Trail Blazers 88
- Minnesota Timberwolves 112, Denver Nuggets 99
- Golden State Warriors 109, Sacramento Kings 86
- Los Angeles Clippers 99, Atlanta Hawks 84
- Oklahoma City Thunder 116, New York Knicks 105