What do you think of when you hear the word culture?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the many definitions of culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”
Sounds familiar, right?
In terms of the NBA, culture is something that up-and-coming teams want to build and championship organizations already have. Ever since Pat Riley arrived in Miami in 1995, he has established a unique culture that rewards hard work and thwarts excuses.
That’s why, after a disappointing 11-30 start, the HEAT never lost sight of the task at hand. Despite all the obstacles thrown Miami’s way, from Justise Winslow’s season-ending shoulder surgery to Dion Waiters’ Pectineus tear that forced him to miss 20 games from late November to early January, the team responded in a way nobody thought possible.
With Waiters back in the fray and Erik Spoelstra rallying the troops, the HEAT went on one of the most remarkable winning streaks in NBA history. From Jan. 17 – Feb. 10, Miami won 13 straight games, which was good enough for the third-longest streak in franchise history. That in it of itself is impressive, but you have to remember that the Rockets and Warriors were also part of that exhilarating run.
Although defense was the focal point (as always), a big reason why the HEAT turned things around in the second half of the season was due to their hot shooting from the perimeter. In turn, the team set a franchise record with 16-straight 100-point scoring games from Jan. 21 – Feb. 25. Thanks to the dynamic backcourt duo of Waiters and Goran Dragić, Miami’s offense operated like a well-oiled machine. As a whole, the duo relentlessly attacked the basket, collapsed the defense and sprayed the ball out to open shooters on the perimeter. When they weren’t doing that, they were knocking down treys themselves. As such, Dragić and Waiters led the team in assists per game (5.8 for Dragić, 4.3 for Waiters) and shot the three-ball quite efficiently (40.5 percent for Dragić, career-high 39.5 percent for Waiters).
Speaking of hitting threes, who can possibly forget Waiters’ clutch shooting? After hitting a game-winning 3-pointer against the Warriors on Jan. 23, he followed that up with another dagger three against the Nets in the following contest. Of course, he also did the same versus the Cavaliers and Hornets in early March.
With Waiters, Dragić and Wayne Ellington lighting it up from deep, Miami was tough to stop from the perimeter. So tough that the team set a single-season franchise record with 808 made threes. What’s more, Ellington set a career high in 3-pointers made (149) and shot 41.1 percent from beyond the arc after the All-Star Break.
Even though Dragić and Ellington continued to shine, Waiters badly sprained his left ankle on March 17 against the Timberwolves and missed the rest of the season. While the HEAT struggled a bit in the games immediately following Waiters’ injury, they eventually responded like they did back in January. How did they do it? Look no further than Hassan Whiteside.
Although Whiteside had some monster performances earlier in the year (including a 30-20 game against the 76ers on Feb. 4), he really showed growth and maturity after suffering a right hand laceration on March 21 against the Suns. Two years back, the big fella sustained a very similar injury and missed three games. This time around? Zero.
That’s because the HEAT, for all intents and purposes, basically played a handful of playoff games towards the end of the regular season. The first game of the gauntlet came on March 28 in Miami’s final trip to The Palace of Auburn Hills. Dragić came up big like he always does in high-pressure situations, but Whiteside would not be denied on a game-winning tip-in that essentially ended the Pistons’ season.
About a week later, the HEAT found themselves in yet another must-win game against a Charlotte Hornets team that was climbing back up in the standings. James Johnson answered the call with 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting, including 6-of-7 from deep, in his first start of the year.
Three nights after that, Johnson and Whiteside came through in the clutch once more against the Wizards in one of the best games of the season. Johnson hit the game-winning layup with 11.9 seconds left and Whiteside swatted Bradley Beal’s three-point attempt to seal the deal.
“Going through some of [the early] struggles, I really do believe that it developed that toughness, it developed the grit, it developed our ability to not make excuses and find a stronger bond and path that led us to some success,” Spoelstra said. “If we didn’t go through that, I don’t know necessarily if we would have had the mental toughness or if this group would have really connected.”
Clearly, Whiteside and Johnson were vital in the team’s success, especially when Dragić needed some help with Waiters out. Johnson helped fill the void with his unique playmaking ability and ranked second on the team in assists per contest (4.3) over the last 13 games of the season. In total, the forward set career highs in nearly every statistical category and proved to be a remarkable two-way player. Whiteside, meanwhile, simply dominated on both ends of the floor, led the league in rebounding (14.1 per game) and set the single-season franchise record for double-doubles (58).
Of course, you also have to take note of the development of the young guys, such as Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder and Josh Richardson. T. Johnson advanced in a lot of areas and set career highs across the board. McGruder, on the other hand, defended the opposition’s best offensive player almost every night and also showed improvement on his playmaking skills later in the year. In terms of Richardson, injuries did hamper his season, but he played very well on both ends of the court throughout the month of April.
When you put it all together, the HEAT became the first team in NBA history to go from 19 games under .500 (11-30) to .500 (41-41) in the same season. You can think of a lot of terms to define the grit and fight Miami had to display night in and night out to accomplish that feat, but it can really be traced back to one simple word.