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The Hidden Figures Behind the Heat’s Improbable Playoff Push

Some of the luster has worn off after Miami’s hot streak, but the team has built a solid foundation for success, and it’s largely due to a few names you’ve never heard before

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The hangover has begun in Miami. The Heat followed their improbable 13-game win streak with nine-point losses to the Joel Embiid–less 76ers and a reeling Magic team that just blew itself up. Now that the streak is over, it’s hard to know what was real and what was a mirage. No one saw it coming. The Heat were 11–30 before it started, with the second-worst record in the NBA. Ravaged by injuries, with Justise Winslow out for the season and Josh Richardson and Josh McRoberts out indefinitely, they seemed to be biding time before an inevitable sell-off and a push for one of the top picks in what should be a loaded draft. Instead, they are now only two games out of the no. 8 seed in the East.

Most of the credit for the way they played has gone to the trio of Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, and Hassan Whiteside. Dragic and Waiters, in particular, have been playing like an NBA Jam duo permanently on fire, taking turns running the offense, attacking the rim, and spotting up off the ball, and pushing the pace at every opportunity. Whiteside has been his usual mercurial self, alternating performances like his 30-point, 20-rebound game against the 76ers on February 4 with more sluggish outings in which he hoists jumpers and never quite locks in defensively. Two slashing guards and a center who rolls to the rim form the foundation of a dominant spread pick-and-roll team, which is what the Heat became over the past month.

However, for as good as those guys were, Miami’s winning streak was as much about its supporting cast. Under Erik Spoelstra, the Heat have been one of the best at finding talent from unlikely places. They originally signed Whiteside to a 10-day contract and then helped develop him into a player worthy of a max contract, while Tyler Johnson was an undrafted free agent who wound up signing a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Nets that the Heat matched in the offseason. For Miami to continue winning, its newest batch of cast-offs has to sustain its level of play over the past month. Here’s a look at three of the unlikely heroes responsible for this NBA season’s longest win streak:

Rodney McGruder

No player encapsulates Miami’s rise more than McGruder, whose ability to come up with loose balls has his teammates calling him “The Scavenger.” An undrafted free agent out of Kansas State in 2013 who spent a season in Hungary and two seasons in the D-League, McGruder came into training camp fighting to make the team. But he had a leg up on his competition for the 15th spot on the roster: He averaged 15.8 points per game as a starter last season for the D-League champion Sioux Falls Skyforce, the Heat’s D-League affiliate, which ran the same offense that Spoelstra uses in Miami. The Heat have been one of the best at using their D-League team; McGruder, Whiteside, Richardson, and Johnson are all Skyforce alums.

McGruder took over as the starting small forward when Winslow went down on New Year’s Eve, which wound up being one of the turning points for the Heat. McGruder isn’t nearly as talented as Winslow, a former lottery pick, but he’s a much better outside shooter, which opens up the floor for Dragic, Waiters, and Whiteside. McGruder is shooting 32.9 percent from 3 on the season (and 37.2 percent over the past 15 games), compared to 20 percent for Winslow, and he’s a smart player who rarely makes mistakes. He’s the perfect role player, catching and firing quickly, confidently attacking close-outs, and keeping the ball zipping around the perimeter.

But where he really earns his keep is on defense, despite giving up a ton of size at small forward. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-5 wingspan, McGruder doesn’t have elite speed or length, but he’s a sound positional defender with quick hands who never gives up on plays and rarely allows open looks if he’s in the vicinity of a shot attempt. He plays with the hunger you would expect from a longtime D-Leaguer getting a chance in the NBA, and his combination of hustle and intelligence has made him a favorite of the Miami coaching staff. They slide him around the perimeter to match up with the opposing team’s best player, and he’s one of the best isolation defenders in the league, giving up only 0.70 points per possession when being attacked one-on-one.

Willie Reed

Reed is another longtime D-League player who has blossomed under Spoelstra. An undrafted free agent out of Saint Louis University in 2011, Reed played for four D-League teams in three seasons before catching on with the Nets in 2015. He played well enough in a limited role behind Brook Lopez last season to earn a two-year contract at the minimum from the Heat, and at the age of 26, he has become one of the best backup centers in the NBA. He plays his role to perfection in Miami, setting solid screens and rolling hard to the rim on offense, and protecting the rim and sealing off the paint on defense.

At 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Reed has prototypical size for a center, with the athleticism to play above the rim and the quickness to slide his feet and cut off dribble penetration. The Heat have a defensive rating of 100.9 when he’s on the floor, tied for the best mark on the team, and they are 4.3 points worse when he’s off, even though he’s backing up Whiteside, one of the best shot blockers in the NBA. Reed may not have Whiteside’s elite athleticism, but he’s almost always in the right position to contest a shot. Watch how he guards Kevin Durant on this pick-and-roll, staying close enough to force him to pass to JaVale McGee, and then recovering fast enough to challenge McGee:

On offense, Reed is in the 85th percentile of pick-and-roll finishers, scoring 1.23 points per possession in the two-man game. He has great hands and good touch around the rim, and he’s capable of taking one dribble and finishing through traffic. Reed is rarely asked to create his own shot, but he does a great job of cutting off the ball and getting himself in the right place to catch passes from the Heat guards when they get in the lane. He’s the kind of big man that every team in the NBA needs, and his ability to play in the pick-and-roll on both ends of the floor will keep him in the league for a long time:

James Johnson

If Reed and McGruder have succeeded by channeling their games to fit defined roles within the team concept, Johnson is the opposite, expanding his game to encompass every conceivable role in Miami. Talent has never been the issue for Johnson, a former first-round pick who has played for five teams in eight NBA seasons. Winning the trust of his coaching staff has.

He was in and out of Dwane Casey’s doghouse in his last two seasons in Toronto, where he struggled with his weight, his shot selection, and his commitment to the team’s defensive game plan. However, over the past month in Miami, Johnson has been on his best behavior, and he has been a wonder to behold.

He is posting the best stats of his career, but he took his game even higher in the three recent games when Waiters was out with an injury, averaging 24 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.3 blocks on 59.1 percent shooting, essentially serving as the backup point guard behind Dragic. How many 6-foot-9 players can make passes like this out of the pick-and-roll?

Johnson is shooting a career-high 3-point percentage, which will probably regress, but there’s nothing fluky about his defense when he’s dialed in. At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Johnson is an elite athlete with the size to match up with the biggest players in the NBA and the quickness to switch screens and keep up with some of the fastest. There are precious few players capable of battling Karl-Anthony Towns from the 3-point line to the post and preventing him from scoring when he gets this much time to dribble:

Johnson will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and he could be in line for a huge contract if he can keep up this level of play. Even if he can’t, his ability to run point on offense and guard centers on defense makes him an intriguing weapon for a playoff team. McGruder and Reed are cogs in the machine; Johnson has the talent to be an engine. From a long-term perspective, the Heat might have been better off by maximizing their chances in the lottery. However, the lottery isn’t the only place to find good basketball players. The Heat have shown the ability to make something out of nothing; whether or not the clock strikes midnight on them depends on whether their alchemy over the past month is producing fool’s gold.