Don’t look now, but the Miami Heat might be a playoff team.
After losing Dwyane Wade to free agency and starting the season 11-30, the Heat have won 19 of their last 23, over a stretch that included a 13-game winning streak. Now Miami is 30-34 and only one and a half games back of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Did anyone see that coming? Well… no.
In fact, back when the Heat were well below .500, it sure seemed they were tanking the season for lottery positioning. Here’s what Pat Riley told local radio in late December…
“[W]e love our young core. And what we have is flexibility. And you need flexibility in this league to be able to move quickly. You can’t get paralyzed by the cap or not being able to make room and being able to trade players. I think the No. 1 asset that we have right now is our flexibility moving forward. We have a first-round pick this year. So we’re dealing with it. We’re dealing with that word that you hate to use – that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild quick. I’m not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami. We have great, great fans. They’re frustrated. They’ve been used to something great over the last 10 years and so right now we’re taking a hit. I think we can turn this thing around. As I said, if five of those [close] losses were turned into wins we could be in the playoffs right now. But they didn’t.
“You can use that word rebuild. But we’re going to do it fast.”
As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller wrote at the time, “This is as bald an on-the-record admission that the tank is coming as you’ll find outside of Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia. The acknowledgment that Miami has its pick is a tell. The word Riley really means when he says the Heat are ‘dealing with that word that you hate to use’ is tanking.”
Riley’s comments and the team’s general suckiness had most observers assuming this was a lost season.
The #Heat are the #Celtics biggest threat to the #Nets not finishing with the worst record in the #NBA. That's a tanking team.
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) January 14, 2017
@Rizzmigizz @SedanoESPN @joshbaumgard the Heat are going to tank this season, no question.
— Rohan Nadkarni (@RohanNadkarni) October 19, 2016
OKC leading MIA 51-29. Might be time to start warming up that tank for the Heat
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) December 28, 2016
Heat Twitter coming to grips on tanking the seasonhttps://t.co/sxqldbOHp6
— Topher (@Cochran790) November 30, 2016
Miami's tank job is going great. With loss tonight, they have fourth-highest odds to land No. 1 pick if season ended today.
— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) December 30, 2016
I’m a diehard @Lakers fan, but as a hoops junky, I feel for Heat fans. Having to watch your team pile up losses w/ players you hardly know..
— J.T. Wilcox (@JTWilcoxSports) January 18, 2017
Of course, you can argue that finishing eighth or ninth in the Eastern Conference is meaningless and that the Heat should have tanked this season, but for better or worse they’re clearly going for it.
One unlikely hero of this surprising Heat season has been Dion Waiters. The enigmatic shooting guard, known for his poor shot selection and undeserved bravado, missed 20 games during Miami’s slow start but came back Jan. 4 in a win over Sacramento.
Here’s what Josh Baumgard, editor of the South Florida-centric sports website Slice Miami, thought of Waiters:
The Miami Heat is a Dion Waiters trade/cut/injury away from being a fun team.
— Josh Baumgard (@joshbaumgard) November 11, 2016
So if Spo continues to give Waiters heavy minutes after the return of Dragic and Winslow we at least know they're full-blown tanking.
— Josh Baumgard (@joshbaumgard) November 16, 2016
Every time I watch Waiters play one thought creeps in my head at some point: Is he shaving points? ?
— Josh Baumgard (@joshbaumgard) November 18, 2016
Incredible how much smoother the Heat's offense is with Waiters on the bench. @CoachSpo ?
— Josh Baumgard (@joshbaumgard) November 18, 2016
@Rizzmigizz @SedanoESPN Waiters as a 1A/B option absolutely helps the tanking cause though
— Josh Baumgard (@joshbaumgard) January 4, 2017
Then the craziest thing happened: Waiters, out of nowhere, started playing out of his mind. He scored 17 points in the Heat’s win over the Rockets on Jan. 17. Days later he put up 33 in back-to-back wins over the Bucks and Warriors, including a buzzer-beater to beat Golden State.
From there, Waiters kept firing and the Heat kept winning. Over the course of Miami’s 13-game winning streak, Waiters averaged 20.6 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting, plus 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
Toward the end of the winning streak, Waiters suffered an ankle injury and was forced to miss a few games. For a few weeks, he struggled to re-discover the magic.
Then Monday night happened. Facing his former team, the Cavs, Waiters dropped 29 points on 12-24 shooting and hit a deep three to clinch a Heat win.
Dion was born with the clutch gene. #HEATisON pic.twitter.com/IcBkAkK7J4
— NBA (@NBA) March 7, 2017
Safe to say, Baumgard has changed his mind about Waiters:
Dion Waiters IS A GOD pic.twitter.com/YSpqivcdpt
— Josh Baumgard (@joshbaumgard) March 7, 2017