It was Feb. 19, and they had a road stop against the Atlanta Hawks. When the Heat took the floor, they were without leading scorers Chris Bosh (blood clots) and Dwyane Wade (knee soreness), plus intimidating defensive anchor Hassan Whiteside (suspended).
But the short-handed Heat flashed two traits that have since come to define them: fight in the face of adversity and a high-octane offense. They not only secured a 115-111 win, but they also found the blueprint for many victories to come.
"We had to adjust and figure out who was going to score and how we were going to do that," Goran Dragic later told Bleacher Report. "I think that was the moment we decided to run more."
The Heat haven't let off the accelerator since. Despite missing their heaviest hitter, Bosh, who's officially out for the postseason, they're trading punches with and have stolen home-court advantage from the East's second-seeded Toronto Raptors.
Miami's systematic overhaul is equal parts a testament to this group's flexibility, one of this season's biggest what-if questions, and an interesting wrinkle in what will be a fascinating offseason for this organization.
How It Happened
There have been massive personnel changes, both internal and external. Injuries shut down both Bosh and Beno Udrih, who was bought out after having season-ending foot surgery. Trades sent out the likes of Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Jarnell Stokes.
The only significant external addition was seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, who joined the Heat after being bought out by the Brooklyn Nets. But the rotation expanded to include rookie second-rounder Josh Richardson, who's added pesky defense and perimeter shooting.
Miami's revamped offensive attack also made Dragic and Luol Deng look like different players. With Dragic given a neon-green light and Deng repurposed as a small-ball power forward, the pair elevated their production and its impact.
Collectively, the two went from averaging 22.8 points on 45.1 percent shooting before the break to 32.5 on 48.5 after. The offense exploded around them, though it's sputtered a bit in the playoffs.
After following the lead of Wade and Bosh to start the season, Miami had to uncover an alternative when that option was no longer available.
"The train doesn't wait for you," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You have to keep on getting out there and competing. You have to find other ways."
What the Heat found was an uptempo, egalitarian attack. They had two players average more than 13 points before the break: Bosh and Wade. After the intermission, that number jumped to five: Wade, Dragic, Deng, Johnson and Whiteside.
But within that equal-opportunity system, the Heat still have a structured hierarchy.
Dragic and Deng are the offensive energizers.
Deng seamlessly shifts between corner-spacing and off-ball cutting roles, and he's bailed the Heat out more than a few times on the offensive glass. Dragic looks as comfortable as ever. He's had 20-plus points in three consecutive games, the same number he had before the All-Star break.
"We always want him going when he feels he can go," Wade said. "He scores the ball very well and we need that, especially without Chris."
The Heat have found more consistent two-way play from Whiteside, who said he knew his role would grow without Bosh and focused on being more reliable.
Whiteside has struggled a bit with individual matchups this postseason—Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 19.5 points on 68 percent shooting this series—but he's one of only six playoff participants averaging a double-double. And as Raptors guard Kyle Lowry can attest, Whiteside's presence changes the way teams attack the Heat, per Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post:
Johnson can create something out of nothing. Richardson and fellow freshman Justise Winslow can wreak havoc defensively and in transition.
And when crunch time arrives, Wade continues to dazzle in the most pressure-packed moments.
"He is the best closer in this game," Dragic said. "Every time we need a basket, he always provides that for us."
This new Miami formula has allowed the group to form an identity that's already delivered a second-round appearance and opened the possibility for even more. It's also raised some questions about where the Heat could have gone with Bosh and how they'll proceed with or without him.
Looking Back and Forecasting
The Heat look like the second-best team left in the Eastern Conference. The eye test leads to that assertion, and the numbers confirm it: Miami's plus-8.4 playoff net rating ranks fourth overall and second out East.
But the Heat still seem at least a half-step behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. And it's impossible to tell how much a healthy Bosh could have changed that discussion.
Before going down, he was the Heat's best player at both ends. He can guard anywhere from the perimeter to the post. Offensively, his three-point stroke would provide better spacing, and his individual creativity could get this team out of its common droughts.
Plug Bosh into this new-look lineup as a do-it-all 5, and there's even more room for offensive growth.
But would the Heat have ever raised the tempo had Bosh always been healthy? His absence necessitated the change, and the roster had to develop without him.
The Heat aren't better off without Bosh—if he's healthy, they could at least make Cleveland sweat—but his loss created an unlikely (and entirely unfortunate) environment for improvement.
Which makes Miami's summer spellbinding.
The Heat have a host of key contributors heading to unrestricted free agency, led by Wade, Whiteside, Deng and Johnson. With roughly $39 million in potential cap space, there probably isn't enough money to bring them all back, barring some deep discounts.
Wade's price is tough to set. He's an All-Star in both stature and statistics, and he's healthier than he's been in years. But he's also 34 years old with a lot of mileage and some frightening injuries behind him.
Deng's second-half surge is likely boosting his bank account by the game, even though he's logged a ton of minutes on his 31-year-old body. Johnson is at the stage when money and numbers may not matter as much as winning, but it's possible the Heat could be thinking younger and cheaper on the perimeter.
And then there's the enigma known as Whiteside. His natural gifts alone could net him a max-money payday, but will Miami be willing to pay that price?
He can dominate a game, but he doesn't always make that kind of impact. And he didn't look like a great frontcourt partner for Bosh before Miami moved away from two-big lineups. Of the Heat's 29 two-man tandems to log at least 500 minutes, the Bosh-Whiteside pairing ranked 24th in net efficiency.
Bosh is, at the least, a big part of Miami's financial plans. Sources told Ethan J. Skolnick and Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald that Bosh "has no plans to retire at this time." Even if he did, his contract wouldn't come off the books right away.
As far as the basketball plans go, though, it's so hard to tell what Bosh's body will allow. This is his second straight season derailed by blood clots. Longtime Heat reporter Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel believes Bosh has already played his last game, per WQAM's Marc Hochman:
If the Heat view Bosh as a question mark, they might be more motivated to pay whatever it takes to keep Whiteside. But if they feel optimistic about Bosh's return, they could lower their offer to Whiteside and focus on finding more complementary pieces.
Or, for the glass-overflowing crowd, maybe a certain superstar (cough, Kevin Durant) sees a future in South Beach and leapfrogs all of Miami's incumbent free agents.
Even with some definitive news finally surfacing on Bosh's status, there's still much to be decided. But the Heat have time to sort out all these moving parts later.
For now, Miami has an against-all-odds season to salvage and perhaps the offensive potency to make that happen.