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Heat are thriving amidst a flurry of challenges

Miami has now won eight of their last 10 games.

Washington Wizards v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Heat are now 22-13, which is nine games above .500. Record-wise, it’s the best they’ve been in the regular season since the year they made the NBA Finals. At face value that shouldn’t be celebrated as too high a feat for a team that aspires to be a title contender, but as often is the case in life, context is essential.

An important bit to remember for this Heat club is the revolving door they’ve endured in terms of players being in and out, mostly due to injuries, and recently, via the NBA health and safety protocols. Add a layer of the tough schedule they’ve endured – which promises only to get more difficult with an upcoming 7-game road trip – and that standing is actually encouraging.

Just three days after learning starting point guard Kyle Lowry would be out due to covid protocols, the Heat announced that veterans PJ Tucker and Udonis Haslem, as well as undrafted-player-turned-sharpshooter Max Strus and Zylan Cheatham (signed to a 10-day hardship contract) would join their quarterback in recovery. The Heat are still without Bam Adebayo (finger), who’ll be out a while after surgery, Markieff Morris (whiplash from the Jokic incident), Dewayne Dedmon (knee), and Victor Oladipo (quad), who hasn’t played all season. To make matters worse, Jimmy Butler again has been ruled out with an injury after spraining his ankle last night.

Yet Miami looked nearly flawless in a win against the also-depleted Washington Wizards which seemed like it would be a blowout before the competition had a bit of excitement in the fourth quarter.

Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler were too formidable a duo for the Wizards to overcome, bringing flashbacks of the games when the dynamic pair led the Heat to the Finals in the bubble. Herro, in his junior campaign, is already the favorite for 6th Man of the Year but also added to his growing All-Star case with a season-high 32 points off the bench.

Butler was terrific with 25 points, a career-high 15 assists, and 8 rebounds.

Both players got to their numbers performing the way the Heat need them to for success at the highest level.

Herro has a case of being the best flat-out scorer on this Heat team already, dizzying Washington’s defense with an array of step-backs, 3-balls, pull-ups, and even drives to the rim, which earned him 10 free throw attempts.

That type of consistency of getting to the foul line would further justify the max contract extension he’s got a great chance at receiving from Miami.

Jimmy was Jimmy at his finest – setting up his teammates throughout the contest, scoring when he needed to, and playing stellar defense. Save for a late ankle roll that has him ruled out against the Spurs on Wednesday, it was nearly perfect for his second game back from the tailbone injury.

The Heat entered the final period against the Bradley Beal-less Wizards up 18, only for a cold spell on offense plus a hot shooting spree for Washington to make it a game with minutes to go. Miami’s remaining lone big man – Omer Yurtseven, who they plucked from the G-League late last season – missed a couple of easy short floaters which contributed to the scoring drought.

But Yurtseven, in the small sample size of him getting role player minutes, has displayed a knack for being in opportunistic scoring spots, like those short stabs at the rim 8-10 feet away. The shooting touch comes and goes, which was also the case for Gabe Vincent last season, but look at him now. When he lines up a triple, the confidence of it going in feels stronger.

Additionally, Omer knows how to use his body to be in solid rebounding position without having to leap too much. He’s not athletic but he’s hauled down at least 12 boards in each of his last 6 games. His slow lateral movements make him an occasional target on defensive pick-and-rolls, but he does a good job of using his body and length to deter opponents’ shots without over-fouling.

With Adebayo still out, Tucker, Morris, and Dedmon’s return dates uncertain, and now more players in protocols, Miami has no choice but to put its faith in Yurtseven. Overall, he’s been promising.

Duncan Robinson has been the most controversial topic within Heat fan circles this season.

Fresh off the recently-signed $90M contract, his early shooting struggles contributed to some of the early Ls Miami suffered. It’s been better as of late – including a season high eight triples with 26 points against Washington – but there is seemingly some exhaustion with his up-and-down performances, which varies from Tuesday’s performance to recent clunkers against Detroit and Orlando.

Add that to Strus’ recent outstanding stretch where he averaged above 20 points and shot more than 40% from deep at a lower price tag ($1.2M), and there’s wonder if Miami should consider dealing Robinson for another piece that could help them contend for a title.

Personally, it feels like this Miami roster has the makings of a championship contender when intact. Their dominant stretch, going 6-1 to start the season, was impressive, but injuries and safety protocols have prevented an extended stretch to see what the main core can accomplish.

The Heat go to San Antonio, Houston, Sacramento, Golden State, Portland, Phoenix, and Atlanta before coming home for four straight home games. Given how well the end-of-the-roster guys have played as of late, how good of a head coach Erik Spoelstra continues to prove himself to be, how a number of veterans could return here and then, it’s tough to count Miami out for any of those games, even if the stretch includes the two teams with the current best records in the entire NBA.

But the margin for error is small.

The Heat have been winning despite line-up inconsistencies, although so have Brooklyn (23-9), Chicago (21-10), and Milwaukee (23-13), who have each at least won 7 of their last 10 games. The top of the Eastern Conference has been an arms race, and while Miami seems to still be figuring out its health issues, the other teams are getting their reinforcements back.

Here’s a reason of optimism for Miami: they are 5-1 overall against each of those contenders ahead of them in the standings.

When at full strength the Heat can defeat anyone in their conference and compete against any counterpart in the NBA.

But whether full strength can be accomplished remains a question, and it figures to stay that way for a bit.