The Miami Heat: From Lottery Lock to Playoff Potential

The First 41

Winter break was ending. I was returning to Marquette University for my next semester when I discovered the Miami Heat were playing the Milwaukee Bucks the Friday before classes re-started. Being a die-hard Heat fan, I decided there was no chance I would miss this opportunity to watch my favorite team play. I entered the arena excited to see my guys go out there and get an upset win. However, as the game tipped off, it was very clear the Heat were nowhere near the level of the Bucks. Milwaukee star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was putting on a highlight show, and hopes for a Heat win were ended in about the second quarter.

This summed up the Miami Heat season to point. The team was consistently lacking any urgency or energy, not to mention there was almost “no talent” available for use per many experts. As the game ended, with Milwaukee winning 116–108, a Bucks fan next to me began to talk basketball. “Must be rough being a Heat fan these days” he stated. I remember answering in a way that seems almost unbelievable now. “I hope we trade Dragić for a high pick.” I responded. Goran Dragić is one of Miami’s best players, no question about it. But the position the Heat were in at that moment, 11–30 record, 2nd worst in the NBA, showed me we were unable to compete with what we had. I left the arena feeling ready for the season to end: all I could think about was who we would pick in the. NBA Draft Lottery. But, three days after this defeat, everything would change.

The Streak

After returning from Milwaukee, the Heat were scheduled to take on the Houston Rockets in Miami. To many, this was an automatic loss. MVP candidate James Harden had the Rockets on a roll, turning a team that many questioned into a top 3 seed in the West. But the Heat had other plans. Hassan Whiteside had a double-double, and Goran Dragić scored 21 points, grabbed 8 boards, and dished out 8 assists as the Heat beat the Rockets 109–103. Miami then went on to beat the Dallas Mavericks and the Milwaukee Bucks, extending their winning streak to 3 and getting revenge on the team that beat them just weeks ago. But now the real test was before them. The “super team” that no one could stop talking about: The Golden State Warriors.

The Heat defeated the Warriors inside American Airlines Arena (pictured above) for a signature win

During the 2016 season, the Warriors went 73–9, the greatest regular season in NBA history. After stunningly losing a 3–1 lead in the NBA Finals, Golden State decided to upgrade even more. By signing Kevin Durant, the Warriors had possibly the most talented team of all time. It can be seen why many gave the Heat little hope to win this game despite the three straight wins. Then Dion Waiters happened. Follow the game from my Twitter account, I jumped in excitement as Twitter exploded. Waiters scored 33 points, including the game-winning three with .6 seconds remaining, as the Heat defeated the Warriors 105–102 in one of the biggest upsets of the regular season. This was the true beginning of the Miami Heat turnaround season. That’s right, Heat haters: Miami was here to stay.

The Heat have proved to be a winning franchise in the past, as they have won 3 NBA Championships (banners shown above)

As Miami was piling up win after win, the NBA world was finally starting to notice the culture that was present in the 305. The phrase “Heat Culture” was even used, showing how it’s not just the players you have on the team: it’s about the environment as well. After a victory over Brooklyn on Friday, February 10th, the Heat win streak stood at 13. Miami was truly living large. Then came Philadelphia.

Doubt Cast in Miami

The 76ers were an improving team, that was well known. But star rookie center Joel Embiid was not available for this back-to-back in Philly, leaving many to believe the Heat should escape with a victory. But this is the NBA, where anything can happen. Despite Goran Dragić’s 30 points and Hassan Whiteside’s 19 rebounds, the Heat fell 117–109 to the 76ers. The 13-game winning streak was officially over. I remember looking at the upcoming schedule for the Heat, finding that we were taking on the Orlando Magic at home that Monday. Orlando has been a team that has gone nowhere since the departure of star center Dwight Howard. If anything was an automatic win, THIS was the game. But, then again, this was also the NBA. Evan Fournier scored 24 points, and the Magic absolutely stunned the Heat with a 116–107 victory.

As a Heat fan, the idea of doubt crept into my mind at this moment. The Heat had just lost to 2 teams far under .500! What if the 13-game win streak just accomplished didn’t truly show what our team was? What if the “chemistry” we had formed was just a myth? Once again, almost like a movie, the Rockets stood in our way. Harden was continuing to play at an MVP level, and there was no way the Heat could win in Houston after beating them earlier this year as an 11–30 team. Then the game was played, and my viewpoint on this team was changed forever.

The Heat is On

James Harden got a triple-double. If you heard that phrase, the assumption would have to be that they beat the Heat in Houston. But Hassan Whiteside had 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks, propelling the Heat to a closer-than-it-was 117–109 victory over the Rockets. This helped to show the NBA world that, despite recent struggles, Miami was more than capable of big time wins. The trend only continued when a March 6th bout with the Cleveland Cavaliers arrived. Led by LeBron James, the unquestioned king of the NBA, the Cavaliers were defending NBA champions. But the Heat didn’t seem to mind, especially former Cavalier Dion Waiters. He scored 28 points, including the dagger bank-in three with seconds remaining, as the Heat stunned the Cavs in Cleveland. This was the final game the Heat needed to prove their worth in the league. They’re ready for whatever is thrown their way.

Production from players off the bench, such as Shooting Guard Wayne Ellington (shown above) was one of the major reasons for Miami’s turnaround

I had the luxury of being able to see the Heat play late this season at American Airlines Arena. They were taking on the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that had just traded for star center DeMarcus Cousins. From the beginning, it was clear this team was much different from when I saw them in early January. You could tell the players were enjoying themselves, getting the crowd fired up at every opportunity they saw. This was difficult to find earlier in the season, as the struggles made happiness difficult to find. One could also see the chemistry between the players was unbelievable, as they would always seem to be in the right place. This could be credited to Coach of The Year candidate Erik Spoelstra, who has always pushed his players until success is reached. While I was sitting watching the game, an older gentleman next to me began talking basketball. But, unlike in Milwaukee, it was the kind of basketball I enjoyed. Good old Miami Heat basketball. At this moment, it truly hit me: this Miami Heat season is special. Then, one game later, everything took a turn for the worst.

The Sprained Ankle

It seemed like it was going to be just another Heat game. Miami, as they consistently did now, got off to an early lead and seemed to be on its way to a blowout victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then, mid-way through the 2nd quarter, everything changed. Shooting Guard Dion Waiters, who was no question one of the most valuable pieces to this team, went down strangely on his ankle. HeatNation held its breath. After everything this team had been through, there was no way the basketball gods could do this to this team. The Heat ended up blowing out the Timberwolves, But the MRI results on Waiters were not good: sprained ankle. It was unknown of he would be able to return during the season. This was clearly a huge blow to a team that asserted itself as one of the top teams over the past few months. Now, they would have to continue without one of their leaders.

The Stretch Run

With Guard Dion Waiters out for the rest of the season, the expectations in Miami went down. But the team refused to give into the eyes of the public, continuing to fight for the 7th and 8th seeds in the Eastern Conference. The run had its good moments and bad moments. The most difficult moment to accept as a fan must be the loss to the New York Knicks on March 31st. After defeated the Knicks just two day earlier in New York, there was no reason for Miami to lose this game, especially after it was announced that Knicks players Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony would not be playing. But the Knicks defeated the Heat 98–94 inside of American Airlines Arena, leaving the fans questioning if this team could fight its way to the postseason. As the playoff push was coming to an end, the Heat were a game outside the picture with three games remaining. A huge game with Washington was on the horizon, in a matchup that would either keep Miami afloat or put them on the brink of playoff elimination. As always, it was easy to count this team out. But the players and the Heat fan base would not allow that negative outside noise into their heads. Hassan Whiteside scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and James Johnson hit the game winner as the Heat defeated the Wizards 106–103. Miami would go on to win its final two games of the season, but the Pacers and Bulls held tough as Miami finished the 9th seed, going 41–41 after starting the season 11–30. Heat fans everywhere expressed their gratitude towards the team through social media (many even claiming this was their favorite Heat team of all time.) It was truly a remarkable season for the Heat, as the commitment, hard work and sacrifice all payed off in the second half of the season. There is no question the future is bright in Miami.

Fan Perspective on Miami’s Season

Even though Miami finished the second half of the season with a 30–11 record, one of the best in the NBA, some still believe the Heat will struggle next season. “The Heat’s roster is incomplete and consists entirely of role players with no true stars or consistent scorers” Tommy Laka, an avid NBA fan, stated. “Dion Waiters has not proved to be a consistent scorer in the NBA. His development into a star-level player could make the difference next season for the Heat.” Yonas Habte, another NBA fan, expressed similar concerns. “The Heat have a lot of potential, but they are plagued by inconsistencies. They have a lot of raw talent that hasn’t fully developed yet. They need a superstar player to contend.” It’s clear that the outside perspective is the Heat aren’t truly ready to take that next step. However, Heat fans have a different perspective on the potential of this team. “The Heat have all their big-name talent locked up for the next couple years, and with this draft being as deep as it is they are looking to add even more young talent” Sam Creveling, a diehard Heat fan, had to say. “They went 11–30 in the first half of the season, and 30–11 in the second half. If they can carry the momentum into next season they will be the team to beat.”

Despite the fact there are many differing viewpoints when it comes to the Heat, it is very clear they are not your ordinary NBA franchise. The turnaround season only confirmed that Miami is a team never to be counted out, as the Heat hope to retain their core and make a push to win the franchise’s 4th Larry O’Brien Trophy.