Young core thriv­ing as Heat en­ters sec­ond half of sea­son

Miami Herald - - NBA - BY AN­THONY CHI­ANG achi­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

The Heat has reached the mid­way point of the reg­u­lar sea­son in sixth place in the East­ern Con­fer­ence with a 21-20 record.

As one would ex­pect from a team that’s hov­ered around .500, there are some things to like and some things not to like from the Heat’s first 41 games.

Here’s a run­down:

WHAT TO LIKE

This cur­rent Heat young core has never looked bet­ter. Through the first 41 games, the most en­cour­ag­ing part of Mi­ami’s sea­son has been the play of 21-year-olds Bam Ade­bayo and Der­rick Jones Jr., 22-year-old Jus­tise Winslow and 25-yearold Josh Richard­son.

Each one has taken a step for­ward this sea­son, even with Richard­son strug­gling with his shoot­ing lately. Richard­son is still av­er­ag­ing ca­reer-highs in points (18), re­bounds (3.9) and as­sists (3.9). Mean­while, Winslow has been tremen­dous fill­ing in for the in­jured Go­ran Dragic at point guard. The 6-7 Winslow has played the best bas­ket­ball of his ca­reer over the last month, av­er­ag­ing 14.7 points on 47.4 per­cent shoot­ing from the field and 41.3 per­cent shoot­ing on threes, to go with 5.4 re­bounds and 4.8 as­sists in 19 games since the start of De­cem­ber.

The Heat’s de­fense has been solid as usual. While get­ting into the top five is the goal, Mi­ami has still been bet­ter than most on this end of the court with the league’s eighthbest de­fen­sive rat­ing (al­low­ing 106.1 points per 100 pos­ses­sions). This is noth­ing new for the Heat — and de­fen­sive-minded coach Erik Spoel­stra — which has fin­ished in the top eight in this cat­e­gory in each of the past three sea­sons. De­fense, as usual, is a big part of Mi­ami’s win­ning for­mula. The Heat is 13-1 this sea­son when hold­ing its op­po­nent un­der 100 points.

Even in his 16th and fi­nal NBA sea­son, Dwyane Wade is re­ally help­ing the Heat. This isn’t just a farewell tour for Wade, he’s ac­tu­ally fill­ing an im­por­tant role for Mi­ami. Play­ing as the Heat’s sixth man, the 36-year-old is av­er­ag­ing 13.9 points on 41.9 per­cent shoot­ing, 3.5 re­bounds and 3.9 as­sists in 25.4 min­utes. But not even those num­bers re­flect the im­pact Wade has had on this team.

Just look at the Heat’s past two games, as Wade re­sponded to a big Celtics run by scor­ing nine straight to stop Bos­ton’s mo­men­tum Thurs­day and also blocked a po­ten­tially ty­ing layup at­tempt in the fi­nal sec­onds of Satur­day’s vic­tory over Mem­phis to force a jump ball that he won.

The Heat’s re­bound­ing has been an ad­van­tage in most games. Mi­ami is av­er­ag­ing the sixth-most re­bounds with 47.1 per game and the third-most of­fen­sive re­bounds with 12.1 per game. This is new for the Heat, which has been ranked in the bot­tom 10 in of­fen­sive re­bounds in seven of the past eight sea­sons. But it’s played a part in Mi­ami’s suc­cess this sea­son, with of­fen­sive boards help­ing to cre­ate ex­tra op­por­tu­ni­ties for an in­ef­fi­cient Heat of­fense. Mi­ami is av­er­ag­ing the sec­ond-most sec­ond-chance points in the league at 15.2 per game.

Some­thing else about the Heat’s young play­ers that’s been en­cour­ag­ing is they’ve played well to­gether. Mi­ami has outscored teams by 36 points in the 245 min­utes the trio of Ade­bayo, Richard­son and Winslow have played to­gether this sea­son. Line­ups fea­tur­ing these three have posted a fairly me­diocre of­fen­sive rat­ing of 108.2 points scored per 100 pos­ses­sions but an elitelevel de­fen­sive rat­ing of 99.2 points al­lowed per 100 pos­ses­sions. With Richard­son and Winslow un­der con­tract with the Heat for the next three sea­sons, and Ade­bayo still on his rookie deal, these are three play­ers the or­ga­ni­za­tion can build around.

WHAT NOT TO LIKE

The Heat’s of­fense has been in­ef­fi­cient in too many games. Mi­ami is ranked 22nd in of­fen­sive rat­ing, scor­ing 107.1 points per 100 pos­ses­sions. The eight teams with a worse of­fen­sive rat­ing than the Heat all have los­ing records. Mi­ami also has the league’s third-worst team shoot­ing per­cent­age at 44 per­cent. It is a credit to the Heat’s de­fense that it’s won more games than it’s lost over the first half of the sea­son de­spite a below av­er­age of­fense.

Poor free-throw shoot­ing has cost the Heat a few games. For a Heat of­fense that ranks in the bot­tom half of the league in ef­fi­ciency, strug­gles at the foul line have just ex­ac­er­bated the is­sue. The Heat has been the sec­ond-worst free-throw shoot­ing team in the league this sea­son at 69.3 per­cent. That’s a lot of points left on the ta­ble, as Mi­ami has missed an av­er­age of 7.3 free throws per game. A big part of this prob­lem is con­nected to cen­ter Hassan White­side, who has made just 44.7 per­cent of his free throws this sea­son.

An un­der­whelm­ing home record has held Mi­ami back from soar­ing past .500. Al­though the Heat has posted a 6-3 record dur­ing its past nine home games, it still owns a sub-.500 mark at Amer­i­canAir­lines for the sea­son at 11-12. Mi­ami is the only team in the league that owns a win­ning over­all record while also hav­ing a los­ing home record. A 10-8 road record helps. The Heat has fin­ished with a los­ing home record just once dur­ing Spoel­stra’s first 10 sea­sons as head coach — in 2014-15 with a 20-21 mark. That was also the only sea­son the Heat ended the reg­u­lar sea­son with a los­ing over­all record un­der Spoel­stra.

Wayne Elling­ton is out of the ro­ta­tion. With 13 ro­ta­tion-level play­ers on the Heat’s ros­ter, there’s go­ing to be a few left out. That was known en­ter­ing the sea­son. What wasn’t ex­pected was that Elling­ton would be one of the play­ers left out. After set­ting a ca­reer-high and team record with 227 made three-point­ers last sea­son, Elling­ton has been a healthy scratch in 12 of the past 16 games. The Heat went into the lux­ury tax to keep Elling­ton this past sum­mer, so the or­ga­ni­za­tion prob­a­bly didn’t ex­pect the sit­u­a­tion to un­fold this way ei­ther.

In­con­sis­tent play has led to some bad Heat losses. The pos­i­tive is Mi­ami al­ready has wins over top teams like the Celtics, Rock­ets, Trail Blaz­ers and Bucks. The neg­a­tive is Mi­ami also has losses to a bunch of los­ing teams like the Hawks (0-3 against At­lanta), the Magic (1-2 against Or­lando) and the Hor­nets (0-2 against Char­lotte). The Heat is 14-10 this sea­son against teams cur­rently below .500, and six of those losses have come at home.

PE­DRO POR­TAL ppor­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

Josh Richard­son, left, and Jus­tise Winslow are a main part of the Heat’s young core. Both have taken a step up this sea­son and are play­ing some of their best bas­ket­ball.

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