The Miami Heat are back on the road Monday after a blowout win in Miami against the Cavs. Cleveland was resting their two superstar players LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, making life a little easier for the Heat.
Before that game, Miami visited the Orlando Magic and suffered a disappointing loss. The last four losses were against teams that playoffs teams are not supposed to lose to. It was only the 3rd time the Heat were held under 100 points over the last 23 games but the 2nd in the last four. All three times, the Heat lost. All three were against teams that are lottery-bound - the Magic and the Mavs twice.
Three Key Heat players were ice cold from the field against the Magic. Dion Waiters was 1 of 11, Goran Dragic was 3 of 14 and Tyler Johnson was 4 of 14. But, the problem really wasn't the missed shots. The Heat probably could have survived the cold shooting from those 3 if the defense wasn't so poor with Orlando getting into the paint and connecting on layups, floaters and mid-range jumpers seemingly at will. It was a mid-range/post clinic by the Magic.
Saturday, Dragic and Tyler Johnson got their touch back against the Cavs. Dragic shot 9 of 12 including 4 of 5 from deep. Johnson went 6 of 11 and 3 of 6 from deep. But, Waiters struggled again. He was only 3 of 10 overall but a respectable 2 of 5 from deep. He started the game where he left off, though, missing his first five shot attempts before finally hitting a layup in the 3rd quarter. The Heat defense seemed to get their form back and held the Cavs to just 92 points despite giving up a 35 point first quarter. The Heat defense looked excellent in the 2nd half, holding the Cavs to 41 points. The defense was much more active than it was in the Orlando game.
Before Saturday’s game, the Cavs were coming off a record-breaking game against the Hawks in Atlanta. Cleveland rained down 25 triples on the Hawks, an NBA record. Their offensive game plan is very different from the more inside-oriented attack Miami saw in Orlando. The Cavs launched 46 shots from downtown in the Atlanta game and will probably try to do the same thing in Cleveland against the Heat with their two most dangerous weapons back. Lebron was 6 of 10 from three and Kyrie was 5 of 8 against Atlanta.
The Cavs bench is almost all-new with Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and former Heat Derrick Williams. The addition of Korver made an already great three point shooting team even better. When Kevin Love returns to their lineup, I believe they will be the best three point shooting team in the NBA ahead of the Warriors and Rockets, who are both historically good as well. While, overall, the Rockets have more made threes this season (930), the Cavs have a much better percentage of made threes (.392 vs .364).
This sure-to-be-tough road game against Cleveland is a sort of heat check. This is a heat check for both the offense and defense who were both very good against an undermanned Cavs squad Saturday, pretty bad against Orlando the day before and very good against the Sixers on Wednesday. The Heat have been alternating wins and losses since a 3-game win streak was snapped by the Mavs in Dallas February 27th. The Heat are 7-3 on the road since a loss to the Bucks on January 13th. But, they have dropped their last two away. This is also a heat check in the sense that Miami hasn’t lost to a non-lottery team since a 4-game losing streak in early January that included losses to the Warriors, Clippers and Bucks.
For Dion Waiters, hopefully this is a bounce-back game. He had one of the best stretches of his NBA career from January 17th against the Rockets until February 25th against the Pacers. During that stretch, he averaged 20.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG and 5.3 APG and shot .484 from the field and .464 from 3-point land. The Heat went 14-1 in the games that he played in during that stretch and 16-2 overall. But, since a loss to the Mavs February 27th, Waiters has been in a shooting slump. In those four games, he’s down to just 9.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG and 3.5 APG while shooting .333 from the field and .250 from three. The Heat are 2-2 in that stretch. If those last four games were heat checks for Dion, he’s gone brick, rattled-in, airball, brick.
The Heat are currently 1.5 games behind the Pistons for the 8th seed in the East and tied with the Bucks in the 9th spot; Miami has both 1 more win and 1 more loss than Milwaukee. Dropping tomorrow’s game would undoubtedly hurt Miami's playoff hopes with only 18 games left after.
Win or lose, this game will give fans, Heat coaches and Pat Riley a pretty good idea of whether or not this roster is playoff-ready the way it is. The Heat players were disappointed that Kyrie and LeBron sat out the game on Saturday as they were looking forward to see how they stack up against an elite squad. Even without Kevin Love, the Cavs are elite.
“We want to measure ourselves and see where we're at against the best,” guard Tyler Johnson said after Miami’s 120-92 rout on Saturday. “We're looking forward to Monday. They will bring their A game. They’re the top team in the league for a reason.”
“We wanted those guys to play,” Ellington said. “When we found out they were sitting out, we were like, 'Ah, man.’ We wanted that challenge. We look forward to that. [Monday] is a huge test for us.”
For the Cavs, at least on paper, this is an easy 'gimme' on their schedule. The Heat, on the other hand, should treat it as a playoff game because it might be one of the most important games of the season. Winning this game could create some positive momentum and set the tone for the final 18 games of the regular season.