2017-18 Season Recap: A Year of Redemption

Photo Credit: David Dow
by Joe Beguiristain
HEAT.com

With the pain of missing the playoffs by the slimmest of margins ingrained in their memory, the HEAT entered the 2017-18 season seeking redemption.

And while a top 10 defense and a breakout campaign from Josh Richardson played a huge role in Miami achieving that goal (more on him later), you can’t start assessing the season without mentioning the importance of Goran Dragić.

Despite the HEAT’s overall balance offensively (nine guys averaged double-figures in scoring, which was the most in the NBA), the Slovenian was Miami’s unequivocal leader all year long. In fact, he earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors twice (Nov. 27 and Jan. 15) and was named to the All-Star team for the first time. Thanks to his influence, the HEAT were never daunted by the task at hand, including an early season showdown with the Boston Celtics on Nov. 22.

Boston entered that late November night on a 16-game winning streak, but thanks to Dragić’s strong start and Dion Waiters’ flurry in the fourth, the HEAT came away with a six-point victory.

Unfortunately, Waiters didn’t have many more moments like that since he suffered a left ankle sprain in late December and ended up having season-ending surgery a month later.

With Waiters out, everyone stepped up and helped Miami forge ahead, but newcomer Kelly Olynyk really made his presence felt and tallied the best offensive rating on the team (109.4) among regular rotation players.

“We thought that this could be a great fit for him to transform and become even more with a little bit more opportunity, and he bought into it wholeheartedly with both feet,” Erik Spoelstra said of Olynyk during exit interviews.

“He became a player that I think every team we played, just like Wayne Ellington, he was high on their scouting report that you have to handle him to be able to handle the HEAT.”

This brings us to another memorable game against the Celtics on Dec. 20 when KO KO’d his former team with a career-high 32 points on 12-of-15 shooting, including a career-high six made threes.

Then again, this jam in the fourth was also pretty awesome:

While we’re on the topic of dunks, let’s get into Bam Adebayo, shall we? In addition to punishing the rim time and time again, the rookie also showed an ability to hang with guys on the perimeter, including LeBron James on this sequence in late November:

That was impressive, but one of Adebayo’s best all-around performances came right after Olynyk’s dominant outing against the Celtics. In the HEAT’s very next game versus the Mavericks on Dec. 22, Adebayo amassed 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, eight rebounds, five assists and a career-high plus-28 rating.

With a lot of things clicking at this point in the season, Miami went on a seven-game winning streak from Dec. 30 – Jan. 14. Unsurprisingly, Dragić led the team in scoring during the run and Hassan Whiteside had some strong games, but Richardson and Wayne Ellington also made a major impact.

Before the streak, J. Rich had already put opposing teams on notice, most notably the Warriors in early November when he held Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Shaun Livingston and Kevin Durant to a combined 3-of-13 shooting when matched up with them.

That said, Richardson really made some noise against the Jazz on Jan. 7 to keep the HEAT’s winning streak alive. In that Sunday matinee, the 24-year-old forced Donovan Mitchell into a big turnover late and then hit the game-winning layup with 5.1 seconds left.

More close games ensued (Miami actually led the league with 53 clutch games during the regular season) and Ellington fooled everyone with a game-winning layup in the team’s very next contest against a tough Raptors squad.

Still, Richardson continued to rack up memorable outings throughout the month of January.

Whether it was an important steal against the Hornets to help James Johnson score five points in less than five seconds….

....or an and-one against that same Charlotte team a week later to put the HEAT up for good....

…Richardson did it all.

With the former Tennessee Volunteer blossoming heading into February, things were looking up for Miami.

But little did anyone know that business was about to pick up in a major way with the return of one Dwyane Tyrone Wade.

After the HEAT made a trade to bring Wade back home to Miami on Feb. 8, it didn’t take long for the future Hall of Famer to get back to what he does best.

How does a clutch block against Eric Bledsoe in his very first game sound?

Game-winner a few weeks later?

Got that, too.

Wade’s return seemed to coincide with improved all-around play from Justise Winslow, who thrived as the point forward for the second unit. Still, the former Duke Blue Devil was already hitting threes at a solid clip before Wade’s homecoming and finished the season shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.

In addition to finding the range from deep and doing his usual damage on the defensive end, Winslow also came through with one of Miami’s best dunks of the season.

Yup, that was nasty.

Shortly after that matchup with Phoenix, it was time for Whiteside to make a statement against the 76ers on March 8.

From start to finish, Whiteside played like a man possessed and took it to Joel Embiid more often than not.

How so?

Well, he scored 17 of his team-high 26 points with Embiid on him, including this jam with contact early in the third quarter:

Naturally, Whiteside also got the job done defensively and thwarted the Cameroonian’s attempt at a reverse layup a little later.

You could say that the 7-footer out of Marshall wasn’t having any of it.

Not too long after Whiteside’s sharp display, the HEAT embarked on a late West Coast road trip that culminated in a game-winning shot from Dragić at Staples Center.

The fun continued for Miami when the team returned home to face the Nuggets on March 19. At the time, both squads needed a win to improve playoff seeding, so James Johnson answered the call.

In a grueling double overtime affair, JJ took over down the stretch and scored 18 points in both overtime periods combined, including this massive dunk that put the HEAT up 144-136 with 52.6 seconds left in the game:

Johnson finished the night with a team and career-high 31 points on 13-of-17 shooting, a team-high 11 rebounds and six assists.

Even with Miami’s sharp play and a blowout victory over Cleveland a week later thanks to JJ, the team had yet to clinch a playoff berth as the calendar flipped to April.

That was until Richardson did his thing against the Hawks on April 3.

With that taken care of, there was one more thing left on the agenda for one guy in particular.

Entering the HEAT’s regular season finale against the Raptors on April 11, Ellington needed seven treys to break Damon Jones’ franchise record for the most threes in a season.

He hit eight.

Ellington scored 20 of his career-high 32 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period combined and also had three rebounds and a team-high plus-18 rating on the night.

Pure gold.

Once all the dust settled, Miami finished as the sixth seed in the East at 44-38 and matched up with the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.

After a tough outing in Game 1, Wade helped the HEAT win a road playoff game in their 19th straight series (the longest streak in NBA history) by scoring 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting, including this dagger:

Although Miami didn’t win another game in the series, Dragić continued to lead the team in scoring, Richardson set a franchise playoff record with seven steals in Game 4 and Winslow brought the intensity needed in the playoffs.

I mean, just take a look at this defensive sequence against Ben Simmons in Game 2…

…and this block on Embiid in Game 3:

When you think about it, the development of Winslow and Richardson is perhaps the most important takeaway from the 2017-18 season.

While injuries are part of the game, both guys had to endure lengthy absences at one point or another. Rather than succumb to the pressure, they did things the right way to become vital pieces for the HEAT moving forward.

“I love those storylines because you’re talking about transformation. You’re talking about two players that were hurt last year [and] that missed a big part of what that team was able to accomplish,” Erik Spoelstra said. “And they had very committed offseasons…the vision of a champion…starts with an empty gym and a lot of sweat and a coach and a player working to transform into something better and different, and that’s what you saw with those two players.”

All that hard work in the summer enabled Richardson and Winslow to overcome adversity and bounce back from a disappointing 2016-17.

And at the end of the day, that’s what the season was all about for the Miami HEAT.