After they closed out the season’s longest road trip with a pair of wins, the Miami Heat might finally be on pace for the playoffs.
The Miami Heat’s next nationally televised game comes at a perfect time.
Having successfully closed out a six-game road trip—the longest of the season—with wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, the Heat are homing in on their favorite part of the NBA calendar.
Over the past two seasons, Miami has made the most of the annual calendar change. January 2017 was marked by a 13-game win streak that buffered Miami’s eventual 30-11 finish to the season. And though they missed the playoffs, the Heat finally had a taste of their potential.
The Heat followed that win streak with its seven-game long younger brother in January 2018. Just as the rest of the NBA entered cruise control ahead of the All-Star break, Miami kicked things into high gear.
Those efforts were rewarded with two NBA Player of the Week awards—Dion Waiters in January 2017 and Goran Dragic in January 2018—and signified Miami’s first honorees since Dwyane Wade was recognized in February 2016.
Though Thursday’s game against the Houston Rockets, which will be televised on TNT, comes a few days shy of the new year, the circumstances are nearly perfect to send the Heat on another run.
Before any sort of significant win streak can take place, Miami has to reconcile with the idea that it’ll have to happen without Dragic. The Slovenian point guard is reported to miss at least two months of play time, after undergoing knee surgery on Dec. 19.
Dragic had already missed 15 of Miami’s 29 games with knee related restrictions or time off for rest. The sudden shift to corrective surgery, is alarming, given its similarity to Waiters’ decision to play through his ankle pain, until being indefinitely sidelined for treatment.
Still, better late than never.
Though Dragic is Miami’s most steady presence at point, his absences haven’t been all bad. The team is 7-8 without him, as Justise Winslow was called on as his replacement.
This is where things get hairy. Winslow is also dealing with an ailment of his own, in the form of an ankle injury sustained against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Officially listed as questionable for Thursday’s match, Winslow has been the driving force of Miami’s road trip success. He averaged 14 points on nearly 42 percent shooting from 3, while contributing 4.2 assists and 5.2 rebounds on a nightly basis.
Those numbers aren’t flukes. Winslow has embraced his continued development at point, even though he naturally takes a backseat when Dragic is healthy.
“I’m in more control,” he said after the visiting the Los Angeles Clippers. “Obviously, I’m at the top of the key, so all the eyes are on me, so I can get guys organized and that sort of thing, but I love it. It gets me more aggressive just having the ball in my hands, and feeling the ball helps me find rhythm throughout the game.”
But even if Winslow doesn’t play, Miami has proved capable of keeping its momentum going.
Josh Richardson has regained his scoring prowess. After being held to 11 points in the horrific 27-point loss to the Utah Jazz, he bounced back with 18 and 22 points to close out the road trip.
And of course, Wade has risen to the challenge as well. He sealed the Pelicans game with one of his patented floaters over Anthony Davis, as the New Orleans crowd celebrated his final visit to the bayou.
Even in the face of injury troubles however, Miami’s biggest advocate entering the Houston game won’t be suiting up in a Heat jersey at all.
Houston, we have a problem
Also working in Miami’s favor on Thursday is the general dysfunction that has largely overcome the the Rockets’ roster.
James Harden is still a basketball god among mortals. Like Zeus donning any of his disguises to enchant and deceive his subjects, Harden is equally able to combine his pure skill with subtle trickery to give Houston an edge.
But outside of No. 13, the Rockets are quickly slipping away from their former, Western Conference Finals prestige.
While the Rockets have taken their last four contests, the heavy lifting has entirely been Harden’s responsibility. Posting 39.5 points per game over the winning stretch, Harden’s co-star Chris Paul’s offensive spark has dimmed. Paul is shooting his third-worst career 3-point percentage (.345), on nearly 6 attempts per game.
Added to that offensive malaise is Eric Gordon’s shooting slump. Usually among Houston’s first options beyond the arc, Gordon has shot an abysmal 13 percent from 3 during Houston’s four-game win streak.
Miami, and every other team in the Association, knows Harden will be near-impossible to stop.
Keeping his supporting cast from heating up however, can continue Miami’s rise through the East.