Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 100-94 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-41) on Friday at Quicken Loans Arena. The Heat is now 23-24.
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1. Justise Winslow is playing the best basketball of his career as the Heat’s starting point guard. He added another standout performance to the list in Cleveland, finishing with 27 points on 11 of 18 shooting (4 of 6 on threes), seven rebounds and two assists in 36 minutes.
“Justise, obviously, was great on the stat sheet and you could feel his presence on both ends of the court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The 22-year-old is averaging 14.3 points on 46.9 percent shooting from the field and 40.4 percent shooting from three, 5.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 24 games since the start of December. He also owns a team-best plus-minus of plus-84 during that stretch.
What was most impressive about Winslow’s performance against the Cavaliers was that he made timely plays. With the Heat trailing by eight points early in the third quarter, he scored 13 on 5-of-8 shooting to help Miami outscore Cleveland 32-17 in the period.
“We all knew that he had a heck of a game,” Spoelstra said. “You felt him defensively and that’s the player he’s supposed to be to really set the tone for that unit, inspire guys defensively. And offensively, just playing with great force, great poise, and physicality from his position. … He’s growing, he’s getting better and hopefully we can build on that.”
At what point is it a large enough sample size to say this play from Winslow is real? Because it’s now been two months of eye-opening play.
2. The Heat’s new starting lineup has produced positive results.
After poor starts began to become a trend, Spoelstra made a change to the starting five and replaced Rodney McGruder with Tyler Johnson in Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers. He used the combination of Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside again Friday.
So far, so good.
This lineup has outscored its opponent by eight points in those two games, and is now a plus-32 in 49 minutes together this season. The group has been tremendous defensively, holding opponents to 90.4 points per 100 possessions.
“I just want to be open to it right now,” Spoelstra said, not wanting to commit long-term to this starting five. “I’m not making any definitive determinations or conclusions on that. Obviously, we need some more consistent play from that first unit. But there’s some things that look like could be advantageous for us. [Tyler Johnson] has got a pretty good chemistry, obviously, with JJ. But I’m open to it and I want that unit to play better.”
3. The Heat’s rotation continues to change. Sometimes it’s because Spoelstra changes things up, and other times it’s because players are unavailable.
On Friday, it was because guard Dion Waiters was unavailable due to a migraine.
With Waiters out, Rodney McGruder returned to the rotation after receiving his first DNP-coach’s decision (did not play, coach’s decision) of the season in Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers. Kelly Olynyk also returned to the rotation after sitting out the past two games as an active scratch.
But McGruder and Olynyk didn’t play much. McGruder logged 10 minutes of playing time and Olynyk was on the court for five minutes.
“Those guys will be ready, they’re working hard behind the scenes and they will get their chance again,” Spoelstra said of McGruder and Olynyk.
When it was done, the Heat used a 10-man rotation. Wayne Ellington and Udonis Haslem were the only active scratches against the Cavaliers.
4. Derrick Jones Jr. continues to be revelation for the Heat.
On a two-way contract just last season, Jones has become a fixture in Miami’s rotation. His energy off the bench was important for the Heat in Cleveland, as he ended the night with 14 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes.
“I just try to do that every game,” Jones said of providing energy. “I try to do whatever the teams needs, really. If they need me to crash the glass a lot more and bring a whole lot of energy, that’s my job. I try to do whatever it takes to get the win.”
Jones, 21, has now played in 23 of the Heat’s past 24 games. The athletic forward has averaged 9.1 points on 56.7 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals in those 23 games.
5. This is an important stretch for the Heat. Not because it comes against teams it’s competing with for a playoff spot, but because it comes against teams it should beat.
Friday’s matchup against the Cavaliers marked the first of three consecutive games against teams that have lost a lot of games this season.
Here’s the stretch Miami must take advantage of: Friday against the Cavaliers (worst record in the NBA), Sunday against the New York Knicks (second-worst record in the NBA) and Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls (fourth-worst record in the NBA).
Miami’s win in Cleveland was a good start, as three consecutive victories during this span would put the Heat one game above the .500 mark.
The Heat needs to make the most of this soft spot in its schedule because what follows will be one of the most challenging stretches of its season. After these three games, six of the following eight come against teams currently in playoff spots with matchups against the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets included in there. To make it even tougher, six of those eight games come on the road.