INDIANAPOLIS — What a difference a year makes.
Miami reached rock bottom at the 41-game mark last season. The Heat lost 116-108 to the Bucks on Jan. 13, 2017 to fall to 11-30, a hole so deep that a 30-11 finish wasn’t even enough to push them into the playoffs.
But just one year later, the Heat are in a much, much different position.
After 41 games this season, Miami is 24-17. That’s good enough for the Heat to stand alone in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, one full game ahead of the No. 5 Washington Wizards.
And instead of hitting rock bottom at the 41-game mark, the Heat find themselves playing their best basketball of the season. Miami extended its winning streak to six with Wednesday’s 114-106 road win over Indiana.
The winning has come with some adversity, though. Miami has had to overcome injury issues over the first 41 games of the season, with eight Heat players already combining to miss 124 games due to injury or illness.
“We’re continuing to get better,” Wayne Ellington said, with the Heat now getting a few days off before hosting the Bucks on Sunday. “We never looked and felt sorry for ourselves or felt like we weren’t capable. We knew we were capable because we’ve shown it and we’ve done it before. It was just a matter of acclimating the new guys and everybody coming together and finding that gel again.”
The winning trend has the Heat feeling like they’re in the middle of a run similar to the 30-11 record they posted over the second half of last season. Miami is 13-4 over its past 17 games, and an even more impressive 54-28 over its their past 82 games.
“It feels like that second half,” Tyler Johnson said. “It feels like we’re starting to hit our stride like we did. It’s just a little bit earlier. This time around we just didn’t suck to start this year. I just think we’re finding a good rhythm between one another. It’s just a different feel in this locker room.”
A different feel, but a lot of the faces are the same. With 11 Heat players returning from last year’s season-ending roster, the continuity has helped. But new faces like free-agent acquisition Kelly Olynyk and first-round pick Bam Adebayo have played big roles in Miami’s success, too.
“I feel like we’re here,” Ellington said. “It took us until the mid-season last season also to get rolling. So here we are, man. I feel like we’re finally showing what we’re capable of.”
This is what the players envisioned when they asked the Heat’s front office to bring last season’s core back. And this is what the Heat’s front office envisioned when they decided to go that route.
“This is exactly what we envisioned,” Ellington said. “We knew we were capable. It was just us coming together and putting it together.”
But Miami isn’t satisfied with where it’s at. With the Heat just 2.5 games behind the No. 3 Cleveland Cavaliers, they have bigger goals.
“We’re not satisfied,” center Hassan Whiteside said. “We’re looking at No. 1 [in the East]. We’re going to keep trying to push and we’re going to keep pushing the rock. That’s what we call it. We call it pushing the rock.”