The Miami Heat’s winning streak is a modest two games, but this is the most encouraging two-game streak of the season.
The Heat return home to face Portland on Wednesday after winning 2-of-3 on the road, allowing them to get back to .500 (13-13) coming off one of the toughest stretches of the season.
The Heat will play nine of the next 13 games at home, but more importantly, a schedule in which they have played 15 road games and seven games against Boston, Cleveland, Golden State and San Antonio becomes much more favorable.
Miami has an opportunity to start climbing the conference standings. Saturday’s victory over Brooklyn in Mexico City started a 15-game stretch in which Miami faces 13 teams at .500 or below. The two teams with winning records: at Boston Dec. 22 and home against Detroit Jan. 3.
And the Heat are off to an encouraging start with two solid wins by a combined 37 points, including Monday’s 107-82 hammering of the Grizzlies in Memphis. Yes, the wins are against two teams now a combined 16 games under .500. But the Heat took care of business, winning two game they needed to win, and both relatively convincing.
Both games followed a similar pattern in that the Heat clamped down defensively to break open a contest that was tight in the third quarter. While the Nets kept the game competitive until late in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies wilted under the Heat’s pressure.
Tri-captain Goran Dragic was asked if he sees the defense starting to play like the Heat expected from the start.
“I sense that a little bit, especially when we are in the right position every time,” he said. “Even against San Antonio we felt our defense (was) trending. As long as we can challenge those shots we can be in good position. The last three games was really good.”
The Heat started the three-game trip with a 117-105 loss at San Antonio. But that was followed by two games in which Miami held its opponents to less than 90 points in back-to-back games for the first time this season.
And the most encouraging part; both games were played without 7-foot center Hassan Whiteside, the team’s defensive anchor who continues to rehabilitate a second bone bruise on his left knee.
Whiteside has missed six straight games; he sat out five earlier with a different bone bruise on the same knee. Thursday marks two weeks since the Heat announced he would miss one to two weeks with the injury. Coach Erik Spoelstra was not sure if he’d return Wednesday against Portland when asked Monday, waiting to hear more about his progress during the last week while the Heat were on the road.
“It has to be a commitment,” coach Erik Spoelstra said about the recent defensive improvement. “It’s not easy, first of all, to make that commitment defensively and then to do it consistently, every single game, and then to be able to close out teams in the second half.”
The Heat are breaking an early-season trend in which they struggled mightily in the third quarter. Miami assumed control against Brooklyn and Memphis in the third quarter, especially defensively.
The two opponents averaged 38 points in the second half, shooting a combined 32.1 percent from the floor and 25.9 percent on 3-pointers.
“In the past we had trouble with third quarters now we finally are figuring things out,” Dragic said. “As long as we continue to play like that we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Spoelstra, who will tie Pat Riley as the Heat’s all-time winningest coach with his next victory, believes that effort on the defense end has led to a smoother, more free-flowing offense.
“Hopefully that’s something we can build on,” he said. “I liked how we got stronger, tougher more resilient in both second halves – different guys in each game – and took a lot of pressure off ourselves by getting multiple stops and then the offense becomes a little easier going down the other end.”