Heat continue to overcome adversity, make most of opportunities while rising in Eastern Conference standings

The Heat’s Josh Richardson (c) celebrates with teammate Goran Dragic after the Heat defeated Utah 103-102 at American Airlines Arena, Sunday, January 7, 2018. Richardson scored the go ahead shot on layup with just seconds left in the game. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post.

MIAMI — Through all of the injuries, struggles at home and inconsistent play, the Heat find themselves in a good spot.

After 39 games, the Heat stand at 22-17 and alone in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just one-half game behind the fourth spot occupied by the Washington Wizards. And amazingly, just four games behind the No. 3 Cleveland Cavaliers.

How did the Heat get here? Just look at the past 15 games.

Miami took advantage of a soft spot on its schedule that began on Dec. 9 against the Nets and ended with Sunday’s 103-102 win over the Jazz. The Heat posted an 11-4 record during this 15-game stretch that included 11 against losing teams and nine at home.

[RELATED: The Post’s exclusive photos from Sunday’s win over the Jazz]

Skeptics will point at this fact and call the Heat’s recent success hollow, but it’s what they’ve been able to accomplish on the road that’s helped put them in this position. Miami is 11-8 away from home this season, a record that includes quality road wins over the Celtics, Wizards and Timberwolves.

And the Heat survived a brutal 24-game stretch that included 17 on the road earlier this season with a 13-11 record.

But it’s how Miami has reached this point that’s been even more encouraging.

1. The Heat have managed to overcome injury issues, with eight players already combining to miss 115 games due to injury or illness this season. Starting center Hassan Whiteside has accounted for 18 of those games with two separate bone bruises on his left knee.

2. Guard Josh Richardson has turned into one of the Heat’s top players on both ends of the court, as he’s averaging a team-high 17.5 points on an efficient 54.1 percent shooting from the field and 46.1 percent shooting from 3-point range in 18 games since Dec. 1. He also ranks second in the league among players defending 10 or more shots per game, limiting those he’s guarding to 38.6 percent shooting this season.

3. The Heat’s offense is still a work in progress, but it’s improving. Miami has posted the league’s 12th-best offensive rating during this 15-game stretch with 107.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare that to the first 24 games of the season, when the Heat were ranked 27th out of 30 teams in this category with 101.3 points per 100 possessions, and the progress they’ve made is substantial.

4. Miami has done all of this winning despite inconsistent defensive play. After finishing as a top-five defensive team last season, the Heat is 12th in defensive rating this year. A lot of the players from 2016-17 are still on the roster, so Miami should improve on this end of the court moving forward, especially with Whiteside slowly returning to form after a knee injury.

5. Miami has already finished its season series with top teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics.

Now, the Heat move on to the next chapter of their season. Starting with Tuesday’s game against the Raptors in Toronto, the Heat play 11 of their next 14 games on the road.

“We’re road warriors, man,” forward James Johnson said. “Our road record is better than our home record, so we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, staying together, being confident, feeding energy to guys and going from there, one game at a time, one stop at a time.”

Progress is important. And the Heat have made a lot of it over the first 39 games of the season.

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