2015-16 Recap: A Season of Change

by Joe Beguiristain
HEAT.com

While it’s true that every season presents challenges that you must overcome in order to succeed, the 2015-16 campaign for the HEAT seemed to have just a bit more than usual.

Due to a number of various injuries to key contributors, Erik Spoelstra had to tweak and adjust his team on the fly. Before we get into the biggest change of the year, let’s take a look back at the first three and a half months of the regular season.

With 23 of its first 36 games at AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami got off to a quick 22-14 start. Among those wins were impressive victories against eventual playoff teams in Toronto, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Portland.

Although all those wins were important, the most impressive one had to be the December 3 meeting with the Thunder. In that contest, Dwyane Wade scored the last eight points for the HEAT, including a tough floater to tie the game at 95 and two clutch free throws to give his team the lead for good. Additionally, Justise Winslow was everywhere on defense. He guarded Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters at certain points in the game.

Two things were evident at that point in the season. First off, Chris Bosh showed almost no rust despite being out for the second half of the 2014-15 season, as both he and Wade continued to lead Miami late in games.

Secondly, you could tell even early on that Winslow had all the makings of a defensive stalwart. In addition to defending almost everyone on the Thunder, the 19-year-old guarded the opposing team’s best offensive player on a consistent basis.

Speaking of defense, you can’t forget about Hassan Whiteside’s continued dominance inside. Take for instance New Year’s Day against the Dallas Mavericks. In the first half alone, Whiteside tallied 18 points and 13 boards en-route to a 25-point, 19-rebound performance. In addition to his usual put-backs, hook shots and alley-oops, the 26-year-old expanded his offensive skillset a bit and started to make more mid-range jumpers than he had shown before.

As the HEAT entered the All-Star Break, the team stood at 29-24 after losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. Goran Dragic had missed eight consecutive games in January due to an injured calf and Tyler Johnson battled a left shoulder strain before undergoing surgery in early February, but the biggest loss was yet to come.

For the second straight year, Bosh’s season was cut short after the All-Star Break. With him out for the foreseeable future and Miami’s offense ranked 24th in offensive efficiency, Spoelstra knew a change was needed.

That change was a shift to a more up-tempo style led by Dragic. With the Slovenian running the show and pushing pace at nearly every avenue, the HEAT started to turn things around. In particular, Luol Deng thrived in his new role exclusively at the four spot.

Deng averaged 15.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest on 48.4 percent shooting in his final 28 games of the regular season. The former Blue Devil made a huge impact on the boards during that span, as he recorded a career-best five straight double-doubles immediately following the break.

The loss of some key guys also paved the way for Josh Richardson to get some burn, and he certainly made the most of it. “Rook 2” turned heads defensively with his tenacious on-ball defense and knack for fantastic chase-down blocks. On the flip side of the ball, he stretched the floor and threw down a number of rim-rocking jams. One of the Richardson's best outings came on March 11 against the Chicago Bulls when he scored a career-high 22 points, with 16 of those coming in the fourth quarter.

Thanks to the faster pace, the acquisition of Joe Johnson and the emergence of players like Richardson, Miami rattled off a 19-10 record after the break and headed into the postseason with some momentum.

After finishing 48-34 along with Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte, the HEAT ended up with the third seed due to tiebreakers and faced the Hornets in the first round.

Miami was certainly tested against a very well coached team on the other side, but Wade answered the call like he always has in the playoffs. The vet gave it all he had in a Game 5 loss against Charlotte, scoring six points in the fourth and altering a shot from Courtney Lee at the rim with 1:04 left to play, but Game 6 was truly special.

With the Hornets threatening to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Wade responded and hit some extremely difficult shots to force a Game 7. In fact, the 34-year-old scored 10 points in the fourth on 4-of-7 shooting, including 2-of-2 from beyond the arc. On the flip side of the ball, the shooting guard also tallied two blocks in the period, with one of those coming on Kemba Walker with 14.8 seconds left to play.

The clutch play wouldn’t stop there however, as Wade kept it up against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. After another three-point barrage in Game 3 against Toronto, Wade followed that up with one of his most memorable playoff performances in a must-win Game 4 down 2-1. In that contest, he ended up with 11 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period combined, including a steal and slam that essentially sealed the deal with 16.8 seconds remaining.

In his 14 postseason games, Wade averaged 21.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest. He also was among the top three in points scored in clutch situations. Dragic also came up big in elimination games, including Game 7 against Charlotte and Game 6 against the Raptors.

While the HEAT persevered through adversity and gave it all they had, including shifting to a super-small lineup with Winslow playing center as Whiteside was out due to a knee injury, they ultimately fell short in Game 7 in Toronto. Still, Tyler Johnson made a comeback from shoulder surgery and gave the team some good minutes, while Winslow and Richardson continued to play wise beyond their years.

And really, that’s what the 2015-16 season was all about. Being able to push through tough times and develop young talent.

With all the adversity thrown Miami’s way, the team could have folded or succumbed to the pressure. But instead, the HEAT did just the opposite.

They adjusted.

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