MIAMI — Nine-game winning streaks don’t come around often.
In fact, the Heat had not strung together nine consecutive wins since the 2013-14 season — the final year of the Big Three era. But that drought is over.
Miami dominated Atlanta 116-93 on Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena to win its ninth straight game. The Heat are now 20-30 after starting the season with an 11-30 record.
“We’re not satisfied and we can’t be satisfied,” Heat guard Dion Waiters said of the streak. “We got to keep going, man, and stay locked in.”
The starting backcourt of Goran Dragic (27 points, five rebounds, five assists) and Waiters (20 points, seven rebounds, three assists) was impressive once again. They combined for 47 points on 17-of-28 shooting, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Miami’s defense made it tough on Atlanta, limiting the Hawks (28-22) to 39.5 percent shooting. Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with a team-high 14 points.
The game didn’t end without some theatrics, though.
After grabbing a rebound, Heat center Hassan Whiteside went back up for a shot attempt and was pulled down from behind by Taurean Prince with 5:53 remaining in the game. Whiteside hit the ground hard and James Johnson immediately charged at Prince in retaliation.
Once the scuffle was over, Prince and Johnson were ejected and Waiters received a technical foul. Whiteside returned to finish the game after the incident, ending the night with 18 points and 18 rebounds.
“It was unfortunate that it turned into that,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But they hard-fouled [Whiteside] unnecessarily, it looked like. I still haven’t seen the replay. But I thought he responded great. He cooled himself off. He was hot when he first got up. But he cooled himself off, gathered himself emotionally in the timeout and then just proceeded to control what he could control and that’s beating them on the basketball court.”
Here are our five takeaways from the game …
1. Still hot: What has been the driving force behind the Heat’s nine-game winning streak? 3-point shooting. Miami entered Wednesday’s game shooting an NBA-best 42.4 percent from long range over the first eight games of its streak. That hot shooting continued with another solid night from long range against Atlanta, as the Heat made 12-of-32 shots from three. Before this stretch of wins, 3-point shooting was far from a strength for Miami. The Heat ranked 27th in the NBA with a 33.8 shooting percentage from three over the first 41 games — before the winning streak. The question is, is this NBA-best 3-point shooting sustainable or will Miami revert back to its old ways?
“I think it’s ball movement and I think it’s the way we’re playing within the offense,” Wayne Ellington said oft the Heat’s improved shooting. “Guys know where their shots are going to come and how they’re going to come, and there’s a rhythm to us that we have right now.”
2. Dion Waiters & James Johnson are going to get big pay raises: This is obvious by now. Waiters is making $2.9 million and Johnson is making $4 million this season. Both players were first-round picks and both hadn’t lived up to expectations before arriving in Miami. But as each game passes, Waiters and Johnson are making their free agent resume more and more appealing. Waiters is averaging 21.6 points on 49.7 percent shooting, and Johnson is averaging 11.2 points, five rebounds and 4.7 assists during the winning streak. With Waiters expected to opt out of his $3 million player option to become a free agent and Johnson on just a one-year contract with the Heat, both are playing themselves into big pay raises this upcoming summer. But for now, Miami’s decision to take a chance on Waiters and Johnson this past summer seems like a smart one.
“He is meeting us more than half way,” Spoelstra said of Waiters. “You can see his versatility. You can see just the skill level that he has. He is unique in his ability to attack off the dribble, but he can also shoot the ball and defend. That’s the part we emphasize the most, to be able to defend, play make, get other guys involved. And he’s been doing that.”
3. The definition of consistency: Goran Dragic. With Wednesday night’s 27-point performance, Dragic has now scored 20 or more points on 50 percent or better shooting in six of the Heat’s past nine games. The 30-year-old has been Mr. Reliable for Miami this season through all the losses and, now, all the wins. Dragic is averaging 19.9 points on 47.2 percent shooting this season and continues to prove he’s worth every penny of his $15.9 million salary.
4. Paint success: For all the winning the Heat have been doing, they haven’t had a lot of success in the paint lately. Miami had been outscored 120-80 in the paint over its past two games — both wins — entering Wednesday. On top of that, the Hawks had given the Heat trouble inside in the past. Atlanta outscored Miami 108-72 in the paint over their first two matchups this season. But the Heat turned that around in the teams’ third meeting to end Wednesday night with a 54-36 edge inside.
5. New rotation: Injuries have forced Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to use many different rotations this season. And Spoelstra threw out a different one Wednesday than he had been using over the first eight games of the winning streak. With Tyler Johnson back in his usual sixth man role after missing five of the past six games with a strained left shoulder, it changed things around. Okaro White did not get into Wednesday’s game until late in the fourth quarter, logging just three minutes. White had played 19 minutes or more in four of six games entering the contest.