What would people have said if you told them before season Heat could move past Cavs on Jan. 31? Whiteside: ‘They would have said we were nuts’

From left, Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13), guard Wayne Ellington (2), guard Tyler Johnson (8) and center Jordan Mickey (25) walk back onto the court after time out during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017, in Miami. The Heat defeated the Magic 107-89. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

CLEVELAND — Even just hours before the Heat faced the Cavaliers with third place in the Eastern Conference on the line, coach Erik Spoelstra offered some perspective beyond the standings.

“We’ve been fighting for weeks to gain some ground in the Eastern Conference,” Spoelstra said after Wednesday’s shootaround session. “We’ve had some exhilarating wins along the way, we’ve had some crushing losses. But here we are. The principles that we have been emphasizing, what our road map becomes, is even more important.”

More important than where the Heat rank in the conference.

“Our guys are aware of the standings,” Spoelstra said. “We’re trying to build more consistency with our defense. So you can’t get ahead of yourself and play the game in the standings world. It has to be about your game and are you getting to your identity more often than the other team. Who is going to get who tonight more consistently. That’s what we’re focused on, building our habits, doing it more consistently.”

The Heat have been more consistent on the defensive end recently. Entering Wednesday, Miami has posted the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (allowing 98.6 points per 100 possessions) since Jan. 20 behind only the Jazz.

And even with third place on the line Wednesday, Heat players understand it’s too early to focus on the standings.

“It’s not as meaningful as people make it out to be until it’s over,” center Kelly Olynyk said. “But like I said, every win counts and once you’re up there, you control your own destiny. It’s your choice whether you fall back or not. So once you gain a spot, it’s really your own destiny, your own fate. You don’t got to rely on anybody else to win or lose. You can control your path and I think that’s probably what the biggest factor in taking a spot, is now you’re in control of what happens.”

But center Hassan Whiteside offered a different perspective regarding the Heat’s place in the standings. With less than three months remaining in the regular season, Miami is battling Cleveland’s talented roster that features LeBron James, Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade for playoff positioning.

“They would have said we were crazy. They would have said we were nuts,” Whiteside said. “But that’s what I’m happy about. I’m happy that we’re winning. It definitely feels a lot better. It definitely feels a lot better than if we were losing.”

And Whiteside admitted he does look at the standings a lot.

“Every day,” he said. “For us, we look at it all the time. We’re just looking up. We’re not looking at any teams behind us. We’re looking up. We’re looking at Celtics, Raptors, Cleveland. We’re watching close.”

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