By Joel Norman , Originally written for Sports Heaven
From 2011-2014, asking this question would have been laughable.
Last season, it seemed understandable, but missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons was unlikely.
In 2017, it’s more of a challenge.
Can the Miami Heat make the NBA Playoffs?
After going 11-30 in the first half of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Heat are an astonishing 19-4 since Jan. 17. Despite the gigantic turnaround, they are a game and a half out of a playoff spot.
Forget talk about making the postseason, Miami is the hottest team in the league and is as good of a pick as anyone to play meaningful games this spring. Time to ask a different question:
Why are the Heat so good all of a sudden?
It’s simple: when Dwyane Wade left Miami for Chicago, the Heat were left without a go-to star player. Hard to believe when at one point they had three.
It took some time, but a leader emerged. He may be an unlikely candidate, but he’s found a home in the NBA. As Isiah Thomas said Monday night, “his confidence is back.”
Frankly, it’s refreshing to see Dion Waiters succeeding at last. The talent has always been there, but he had yet to find a system where he could succeed. At Syracuse, Waiters was the primary threat for the Orange and constantly got the ball on each possession. In his first couple seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Waiters also was a focal point of the offense and averaged double-digit scoring while shooting over 40-percent both seasons.
Then, things changed when LeBron James came home. After attempting 13.4 and 14.2 shots per game in his first two seasons, respectively, Waiters only attempted 10.4 field goals per game with the Cavaliers in 2014-15. Clearly, he was not comfortable in a secondary role and was later traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In his first year with the Thunder, Waiters averaged 30.2 minutes per game and attempted 12.9 shots per game, but his shooting percentage dropped below 40-percent. Kevin Durant was hurt and Waiters became one of Russell Westbrook’s key supporting members, but something wasn’t working. The next season, Waiters again was a go-to guy off of the bench, but he only averaged 9.8 points per game in 27.6 minutes per game, his lowest totals for a full season in his young career.
When Wade left the Heat, Miami was scrambling for replacements at shooting guard. They needed someone to come in and take over for a local legend. For Waiters, the opportunity could not have been better. For the first time in his career, he is the guy. In Cleveland, he played second fiddle to Kyrie Irving and then the Big Three. In Oklahoma City, Durant and Westbrook were the main event. But in Miami, Waiters gets a chance to show off his abilities each night.
Perhaps Waiters’ career was restarted on Jan. 23, 2017.
The Heat had won three in a row, but no one seemed to care. They were still out of the playoff picture and an afterthought this season.
This night was different. The Golden State Warriors were in town and, as is the case every time the Warriors are on the road, the home team had extra motivation. Miami was the obvious underdog, yet found a way to be tied with Golden State with 11.7 seconds remaining in regulation.
With no timeouts, the Heat had to bring the ball up the length of the court. Who took the ball up? The man with 30 points on the evening.
Waiters calmly dribbled past the timeline and to the top of the key, even as head coach Erik Spoelstra frantically called to his shooting guard to speed it up.
Point guard Goran Dragic called for the ball, but Waiters waved him off.
He wanted Klay Thompson for himself.
Waiters used six dribbles to switch the ball between hands, all the while staring Thompson down. On his last dribble, Waiters crossed the ball through his legs and to his left hand. Thompson, who had yet to move past the three point arc, suddenly backed up, thinking that Waiters might drive into the lane. After the game, Thompson admitted, “it wasn’t good defense.”
Waiters had no intention of winning by two. He wanted the three-ball.
Knowing that he had caught Thompson off guard, Waiters heaved a long, arcing shot with only three seconds to go.
Who hit that shot?
Jeez, Dion Waiters is still in the NBA?
That’s the last we’ll hear from him this season.
The win was the Heat’s fourth in a row and they would win nine more games before suffering a defeat. Two nights after the Golden State-stunner, Waiters nailed another game-winning three as the Heat defeated the Brooklyn Nets on the road.
Do a quick search on YouTube of “Dion Waiters game-winners.” The majority are from this season.
During the streak, Waiters scored at least 17 points in nine of the 11 games that he played. Prior to the streak, Waiters had touched the 17 or more mark in only seven of the 21 games that had played.
Without a doubt, Waiters is Miami’s most valuable player. Yes, the offense would struggle to flow without the steady Dragic and Hassan Whitesidecontract says that he is the team’s most important player, but the Heat and Waiters have made for a perfect match.
Waiters missed time with groin, back and ankle injuries all season. He did not play from Nov. 28-Jan. 3 and Miami went 5-15. All told, the Heat are 7-16 without their star guard.
By no means is Dion Waiters a superstar or among the game’s best players. Take his most recent game; Monday night against the Cavaliers. Waiters got out to a phenomenal start, scoring 24 points on 10-12 shooting in the first half.
In the second half, the fifth-year guard only scored five points on 2-12 shooting. The Cavaliers stepped up and stopped Waiters.
They didn’t stop him when it mattered most, though. With 12.2 seconds remaining in regulation, Waiters banked in a three from the center-court Cavaliers “C” logo. Waiters’ veins are made of ice this season.
Dion Waiters is a work in progress. He’s not going to light the world on fire by leading the Heat to the NBA Finals this season. He’s not going to hit the game-winner every time that Miami wins. He’s not going to win MVP.
But maybe, he’s the key cog to a rebuild in Miami. A rebuild that could have multiple championships in its future. Maybe.