MIAMI — Seven-game winning streaks don’t come around often. A seven-game winning streak hasn’t come around for the Heat since the Big Three era in the 2013-14 season.
What did it take to break that drought?
It took a Heat team with an injured young core and a list of players on short-term contracts — seven players on the current roster can opt to become free agents this upcoming summer. It took a Heat team that reached the season’s halfway point with an 11-30 record.
But since getting to that 11-30 record, Miami has been the hottest team in the NBA. The Heat currently own the NBA’s longest winning streak at seven games, improving their record to 18-30 entering Monday’s home game against the Nets.
“Without trying to be corny or without trying to sound biased, it’s this organization,” James Johnson said of what kept the team believing despite an 11-30 record. “We breed champions around here and champion mentality on and off the court. We knew what we were doing when we were losing and we knew what we had to do better. Instead of complaining or making excuses about it, we just got it done in practice.”
And with each win, the Heat have pushed away the outside talk about the NBA Draft and top draft prospects like Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith and Lonzo Ball. In fact, the guys inside Miami’s locker room are starting to believe that making the playoffs is still within reach.
“Playoffs have always been the goal,” center Hassan Whiteside said. “We never threw this season away. We were just like ‘Hey man, we got injuries, but we’re not going to make excuses. We’re not a bad team.’ Even Steve Kerr was saying that we’re better than our record. Even when they beat us. I always said, ‘We’re better than our record.’ We’re building great habits. We had so many tough games where we built the mental toughness for it.”
A look at the standings as of Sunday morning shows Miami isn’t that crazy for thinking playoffs. Although the Heat are still tied for the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference, they are five games out of the final two playoff spots in the East with Chicago (23-25) and Charlotte (23-25) currently holding those two slots.
The Heat’s schedule is working in their favor, too. Seven of Miami’s next eight games come against losing teams with the Atlanta Hawks (27-20) the only winning team on its schedule during this stretch, and 18 of the Heat’s final 34 games of the regular season come at home.
What would it take for the Heat to sneak into the playoffs? The Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed finished with a 38-44 record in three of the past four seasons, and the East’s No. 8 seed is on pace to finish with 39 wins this season.
That means the Heat would need to close out the regular season with a 21-13 record to get to 39 wins.
“Definitely,” Goran Dragic said when asked if playoffs were on his mind after Saturday’s win over Detroit. “Everybody wants to play in the playoffs. The best basketball is in the playoffs. Of course, we’re in a little ditch. But we’re climbing up. Hopefully that’s going to be enough for the playoffs.”
If it ends up not being enough, the Heat won’t make excuses.
Miami has made it a point to avoid excuses throughout this up-and-down season even though 14 Heat players (including Chris Bosh) have combined to miss an NBA-high 203 games due to injuries over the first 48 games of the season.
“We had great stretches of basketball even against the best teams out there,” coach Erik Spoelstra said thinking back to Miami’s 1-5 road trip that preceded the winning streak. “We just weren’t able to put it all together, to close out games. But just as importantly, the days in between, the approach every single day not to feel sorry for ourselves or to deflect or come up with excuses, but just to try to get better. We started to grow closer on that road trip. That’s been a hallmark for this team all year long.”
The wins haven’t always been there, but that mentality has. Now it’s starting to pay off.
“I think guys are finally healthy and we’re building that chemistry and that trust is there, and guys are being held accountable,” guard Dion Waiters said. “Everything else is going to take care of itself.”