Heat’s Playoff Hunt Isn’t Over Yet
Things are looking pretty cloudy in Biscayne Bay right now. After last night’s loss in Philadelphia, The Miami Heat are 27-30, a win percentage of 0.456 that is percentage points behind an Orlando team it's battling for the Southeast division crown and a spot in the East playoffs. The current picture has the .500 Nets in the 6th seed, with two sub-.500 teams in Charlotte and Detroit holding down the 7th and 8th spots, so a .500 record almost looks like a postseason guarantee in the year's East -- pathetic though that may be. Miami would need to go 15-10 moving forward to hit that mark, which sounds daunting; but if history is any guide, Miami can break even and make the playoffs.
The Heat have been one of the league's most consistent 'second half' teams of the recent past. Despite losing LeBron, the Heat have been .500 or better in every 'second half' since the end of the Big 3. In the 2014-2015 season, after Chris Bosh tragically went down with blood clots right before the All-Star break, they went 15-15 to close out the season. In 2015-2016, after Bosh was lost again to blood clots at the break, they went 19-10. In 2016-2017, when they closed the season on a 30-11 tear, they went 16-9. And last year, the year of Dwyane Wade’s return, they went 14-10. In their worst season they were a .500 team after the break and on average they were 16-11; 15-10 looks very doable indeed.
This may seem like an unusual trend at first glance, as the Heat haven't even made the playoffs in half of those seasons, but it makes sense when you remember Miami has an elite head coach in Erik Spoelstra. Though he has his critics, there’s a reason he’s the second longest-tenured head coach in the league behind only the legendary Gregg Popovich. The knowledgeable NBA observer would agree that the roster has been a mess the past few years, lacking a true All-Star talent -- and no, I don't count Dragic's inclusion as the second injury replacement or Dwyane Wade's as an honorary addition. Despite the limitations, coach Spo has always figured out a way for this team to close a season strong.
Miami will certainly need it this year.
While 15-10 is within the range of what Miami has done before, a look at the schedule shows the Heat will have to earn their way into the postseason. According to metrics, the Heat have the seventh toughest remaining strength of schedule after the break, including two games each against four of the East’s elite teams, the Philadelphia 76ers (one of which they lost in tough fashion last night), Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and Toronto Raptors. Add to that three games against elite teams from the West: the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Oklahoma Thunder. Finally, they have four games in March against the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, and Orlando Magic: all three of whom are going to be jostling with the Heat for the 7th and 8th seeds. Those four games are critical; if things go badly, they will be the nail in the coffin for the Heat.
With all that said, there is still reason to be optimistic. Despite going 2-3 in their last five before the break - all on the road - the Heat’s new starting lineup of Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, and Hassan Whiteside played very well. The lone move the Heat made at the trade deadline to send out Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington has relieved the logjam at the guard position, giving players more consistent playing time to build team chemistry. Dragic is set to return after being sidelined for two months following knee surgery, as is the energetic Derrick Jones Jr., who was out a few weeks with bone bruises.
If everything comes together for the Heat, they can make the playoffs while also riding a hot streak, ready to cause havoc for whomever they play in the first round. While it would be unrealistic to expect the Heat to advance past the first round, with the Heat’s defense they can certainly make it a tough series. Though many Heat fans would prefer the team tank, it's not really in Pat Riley to do it, and I’ll argue it’s a better send off for the great Dwyane Wade to at least get one more shot at the playoffs.
If that's going to come to pass, it’s time to get to work.