You know that feeling when you finally meet up with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time? And the conversation flows easily because there’s so much to catch up on, with so little time to make sure nothing’s left behind?
Well in basketball terms that’s what it felt like to watch the Miami Heat dominate in wire-to-wire fashion on the road against the New Orleans Pelicans. The home team didn’t have Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, who account for almost a combined 60 points a game, but Miami hasn’t been a model of consistency when it comes to defeating the opponents they’re supposed to, so this win, as superior as they might have been when it comes to talent, was still a welcome sight.
The Heat bounced back after a letdown in Atlanta where a poor defensive effort in the first half ultimately doomed them. Kyle Lowry returned from knee discomfort on Wednesday and looked fine, while the rest of the guys who have been stepping up as of late continued to play at a high level. Winners in 13 of their last 19 games, Miami has improved back to four games above .500 at 25-21, tying the New York Knicks for the 6th place in the Eastern Conference standings, and getting closer to within striking distance of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets.
As grueling as their schedule in January has been – and it’s far from done – in vintage Heat Culture fashion, they’ve risen above the obstacles which had the potential to break them to manifest the best version of the team, which statistically is now back to being one of the league’s best defensive units. Once again, this team has shined with their backs against the wall.
Bam Adebayo's leap back to the All-Star game continued in New Orleans:— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) January 19, 2023
+16 in 31 minutes.
NBA's leading scorer in the paint.
Top 3 center in the league. pic.twitter.com/89VTou1ENN
Bam Adebayo continues to play like the all-around best player on the Heat. Whether it’s zone, switch, or drop, he is the fulcrum of Miami’s defense and now he’s also becoming the team’s heartbeat on offense, whether when scoring or creating advantageous possessions for teammates.
When he’s aggressive, getting to the rim, looking for his number while continuing to play the role of game-changer on the other end, this squad can compete against any adversary in the NBA. And when it happens against weaker-caliber foes, the Heat, who lead the NBA in clutch games played, can enjoy what’s been a rare occasion of a one-sided trashing.
Bam Adebayo (up to 19 points on 9/13 FGs) continues to lead the NBA in points scored in the paint. Here's one example why: pic.twitter.com/zhZ6c7jR2U— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) January 19, 2023
Another superb defensive play by Bam that leads to a 3-pointer by Lowry to put Miami back on top by 20.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) January 19, 2023
Also looks like Herro just avoided a travel at the last second by continuing his dribble pic.twitter.com/M0RQFIYMbP
So this is the all-world defender who apparently doesn't even deserve to make the top 3 of the DPOY race. Aight. pic.twitter.com/aKQHnIr742— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) January 19, 2023
That Oladipo-Adebayo connection on the 2-man game is becoming a legit go-to weapon for the Heat, especially when the bench goes up against other 2nd man units. Dipo's touch on the pass & Bam's touch on the shot are reliable. pic.twitter.com/5ieAz543t3— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) January 19, 2023
What really stuck out for the Heat as well was their depth, which hasn’t been the source of confidence this season which it was in their road to the top seed in the East last year. Jimmy Butler had 18 points and 7 assists on 13 shot attempts, Lowry finished with 7-8-4, Tyler Herro had 14 points and 7 assists, Gabe Vincent continued his hot shooting (with a couple of buzzer beaters) to score 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, and Max Strus finished with 13 points plus a career-high 10 assists. Caleb Martin and Orlando Robinson even provided 10 markers apiece.
A Heat rotation which seemed in flux for so much in the first half of the season is setting itself in stone, even if the starting unit – which is one of the best in the NBA – has played only a remarkable 16 games together. The second unit has been stabilized by the improved play of Victor Oladipo, who has discovered a good balance of when to attack and when to create for others while making plays happen on the other end. His speed, which looks close to what it was during his heyday in Indiana, has given Miami’s transition attack a new layer that opens up opportunities for Butler, Adebayo, Herro, and the supporting cast.
All-Star Dipo-like finish by Victor who's becoming more and more reliable to be a playmaker on offense.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) January 19, 2023
He's an important part in this Miami rotation. Game-changer. pic.twitter.com/5n6GaSlNQJ
From a macro perspective the Heat are still a move or two away – another large wing who can play the four, anyone? – from becoming the type of title contender the league can take seriously. Perhaps the upcoming trade deadline will mitigate that by bringing in a new piece either through a trade or by signing someone from the buy-out candidates. (Uhm, hello Jae Crowder?).
But Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has always believed that the improvement of a team – especially one with championship goals – isn’t as much about making one splashy change but rather the ability to form winning habits through little steps every single day. As Bam Adebayo mentioned early in his career: “If you get one percent better every day, you’re 100% better in 100 days.”
Early this season the Heat rode a rollercoaster of mediocrity and inconsistency, unable to find that timeline of tangible improvement. They’d look elite one day and like a lottery team the next. As individuals have started to better realize what their roles have to be to play winning basketball collectively – and actually perform those roles – the consistency of their performances has become more apparent.
That might not make all the difference in the world, but it’s more than a start.