The Miami Heat put together an impressive run in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, reaching the 2020 NBA Finals and performing at a competitive level against the Los Angeles Lakers despite some key injuries. As a result, the Heat faced substantially larger expectations as the 2020-21 season approached, especially when accounting for the return of the majority of the team’s core. As such, it was surprising to see Miami stumble out of the gate, posting a 7-14 record in the first 21 games. There were injury and COVID-19 protocol-related absences, however, and as the team rounds into form, the Heat are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
Erik Spoelstra’s team is now 21-18 overall and in sole possession of the No. 4 seed in the East. While the middle portion of the conference is jumbled to the point of comedy, Miami’s recent play stands out in that they are 10-1 in the last 11 games. In fact, the only loss came without Jimmy Butler in the lineup and, while the offense has been merely solid, Miami’s defense has been lights-out in allowing only 104.4 points per 100 possessions.
Opponents are shooting just 42.7 percent from the floor during that run, the lowest mark in the NBA over that span, and the Heat are also forcing a turnover on 17.2 percent of defensive possessions. Those marks may be unsustainable but, in short, Miami has been unbelievably good when Butler plays, and much of that success arrives due to stingy defense.
The Heat are a blistering 17-8 when Butler suits up this season and, beyond that, Miami sports a +6.6 net rating in 834 minutes with their centerpiece on the floor. In direct contrast, the Heat have a dismal -7.2 net rating when Butler is off the court, either for in-game rest or injury, and the team’s success, or lack thereof, seems to be directly attributable to his presence. Granted, Miami does have another All-Star in Bam Adebayo, but the talented big man has missed the last four games and, with Butler available, the Heat continue to win.
It may be unwise to assume the Heat can continue at their 17-8 pace when Butler plays, if only because some of the team’s cast seems to be stalling on some level. Tyler Herro’s bubble breakout hasn’t continued, with a 53.3 percent true shooting clip this season. Duncan Robinson remains one of the league’s best marksman, but he has been more human this season (39 percent from three and 61 percent true shooting) after a ludicrous display of efficiency in 2019-20.
Overall, the Heat have still been outscored for the season (-0.9 points per 100 possessions), and that is at least mildly concerning. As noted, those numbers swing to the positive when Butler plays but, even when he is on the floor, Miami’s offensive rating of 111.4 would place the Heat directly in the middle of the league. The team’s overall recipe could be one that dictates a top-five defense carrying the water of a middling offense but, without more information, it is tough to say that in definitive terms. Regardless, the Heat seem to have found their stride and, with a total mess in the standings beyond the top there, Miami is now in the driver’s seat for the No. 4 seed and homecourt advantage in the first round.
Where does the uptick place the Heat in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.
1. Brooklyn Nets (27-13, Last week — 1st)
The Nets assumed the top spot last week and did nothing to give it away. Brooklyn started the second half of the season with three straight wins, toppling the Celtics and Knicks in the process. At some point, Brooklyn is going to need Kevin Durant to return, but they are cruising without him.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (27-12, Last week — 4th)
Joel Embiid’s injury certainly casts a shadow over the proceedings in Philadelphia, but all indications are that it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. When he’s not playing, the 76ers aren’t the second-best team in the league, but they have a great profile right now and their offense is playing at perhaps its highest level of the season.
3. Phoenix Suns (26-12, Last week — 3rd)
It wasn’t a blemish-less week for the Suns, as they dropped a home game to the Pacers. Phoenix did recover from there to pound the Grizzlies on Monday, and their recent run is ridiculous. The Suns are 18-4 in the last 22 games and, since that blitz began on Jan. 28, they have both the best record and the best net rating (+10.2) in the NBA.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (25-14, Last week — 6th)
The Bucks are 9-1 in the last 10 games. Ho-hum. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists per game. Ho-hum. Milwaukee is second in net rating. Ho-hum.
5. Utah Jazz (28-10, Last week — 2nd)
On the positive side, the Jazz continue to lead the NBA in both win-loss record and point differential. That’s not a bad place to be. Utah has been mortal recently, though, with a 4-5 mark in the last nine and three losses in the last four games. They were due for a downturn at some point, simply because of how dominant they were, but finding the true level will be interesting.
6. Denver Nuggets (23-16, Last week — 5th)
Denver had a hiccup at home against Dallas on a back-to-back this weekend, but they recovered well. The Nuggets took care of business in a 15-point win over the Pacers, and this is a team that is rounding into form at 6-1 in the last seven games. If they keep winning, Nikola Jokic could make a bigger impact on the MVP race because, well, he’s been incredible.
7. Los Angeles Lakers (26-13, Last week — 7th)
Despite a comical missed free throw from Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers made light work of the Warriors on Monday night. That doesn’t fix everything, but Los Angeles is just trying to hold the line until the return of Anthony Davis. Upcoming home games against Minnesota, Charlotte and Atlanta this week may help.
8. L.A. Clippers (26-15, Last week — 9th)
L.A. had an awful loss in New Orleans this weekend and they are just 5-7 in the last 12 games. The Clippers did bounce back by beating Dallas on the road, but it’s not as if this is a red-hot team at the moment. They are leaning on their full-season sample and frustrations are peeking out.
9. Miami Heat (21-18, Last week — 12th)
The Heat have five of the next six games at home, which provides a path to stay hot. We’ll see if they can replicate their recent play or whether the previous baseline will reemerge.
10. Boston Celtics (20-18, Last week — 8th)
Tuesday’s national TV tilt between Boston and Utah will be fascinating. The Celtics are playing much better basketball in recent days, and the Jazz will be looking to recapture their mojo.
11. Dallas Mavericks (20-18, Last week — 10th)
It’s pretty easy to believe in Dallas right now. They are 11-4 in the last 15 games and, after some struggles, the team’s vaunted offense is back. The Mavericks are scoring 1.18 points per possession during that run.
12. Atlanta Hawks (19-20, Last week — 17th)
Will the Hawks ever lose under Nate McMillan? They are 5-0 since he took over and, even when accounting for soft competition, Atlanta is now winning games they are supposed to win. That’s pretty much all they need to do in the East.13. Charlotte Hornets (20-18, Last week — 20th)
We’re giving the Hornets the bump that comes with four straight wins. It has to be noted that the Hornets beat the Pistons, short-handed Raptors and Kings this week, but every win counts in the standings.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (22-16, Last week — 11th)
Portland is 4-6 in the last 10 and just 1-2 after the All-Star break. The team’s only post-break win is over Minnesota, which they gave right back. It’s not problematic yet, but the Blazers aren’t playing at their top level. The return of CJ McCollum will definitely help, though, and he’s on track to play Tuesday.
15. San Antonio Spurs (20-16, Last week — 13th)
Since a stretch of four postponements in February, the Spurs are just 4-5. Most of that can be traced to a middling offense, and San Antonio has three more games left on a road trip. After that, San Antonio plays nine (!) straight at home, which is always nice from a scheduling standpoint.
16. Golden State Warriors (20-20, Last week — 16th)
It’s pretty weird right now for the Warriors. They just lost five out of six, but the only win came over the Jazz. Also, all five losses came to playoff teams from the West and four of them came on the road. Shrug.
17. New York Knicks (20-20, Last week — 14th)
The Knicks are the definition of average right now. They are 20-20 and they have outscored their opponents by exactly one point this season. Of course, that would’ve been seen as a huge win in the preseason, but they aren’t playing quite as well as they have at various stages of the season.
18. Chicago Bulls (17-20, Last week — 19th)
On the heels of two double-digit losses to start the second half, the Bulls were wavering a bit. They did respond by thumping a shorthanded Raptors team on Sunday, but Billy Donovan is still tinkering with lineups and there isn’t much stability at the moment. Alas, they’re hanging around the playoff mix.
19. Memphis Grizzlies (17-19, Last week — 18th)
Memphis went 1-3 this week and, really, things swung in OKC. They blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to the Thunder, and that probably cost them a couple spots in the rankings. That’s a game that a team competing for the playoffs shouldn’t lose.
20. Indiana Pacers (17-21, Last week — 21st)
This week was a mixed bag for Indiana. They are just 2-7 in the last nine games, and that isn’t inspiring confidence from anyone. In contrast, they looked very good in a road win over red-hot Phoenix on Saturday, so that helps to stabilize matters, and Caris LeVert’s return to the floor is a very welcome sight.
21. New Orleans Pelicans (17-22, Last week — 24th)
Overall, it was a good week for the Pelicans. With that said, they were absolutely horrendous in a 30-point loss to the Wolves coming out of the break, so it’s tough to get too excited. They did bounce back with two wins, though, and New Orleans is just 1.5 games out of the play-in.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder (17-22, Last week — 23rd)
Every time it feels like the Thunder are really leaning into the tank… they get another win. That happened with a home victory over Memphis on Sunday after a dreadful effort in a 22-point home loss on Saturday. The product the Thunder are putting on the floor right now does not lend itself to success, but they continue to overachieve and they are pretty fun.
23. Toronto Raptors (17-22, Last week — 15th)
The Raptors have lost five in a row dating back to the first half of the season. That is very bad for a team trying to make the playoffs. At the same time, they’ve been playing without three of their best four players, so it is tough to fault Toronto for their uneven performance.
24. Washington Wizards (14-24, Last week — 22nd)
It wasn’t a great week for the Wizards, with the team finishing 0-4. However, three of those losses came to Philadelphia and Milwaukee, and Russell Westbrook had a 42-point explosion over the weekend.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers (14-24, Last week — 25th)
Cleveland only played twice this week, and they scored 82 points in each game. That does track with the team’s league-worst offense, but it’s very difficult to win in the modern NBA when you can’t get to 90. Optimistically, Larry Nance’s return should help things, but Kevin Love came back and got injured again, pouring cold water on much optimism they’d soon be at full strength.
26. Sacramento Kings (15-24, Last week — 26th)
Let’s call this week a wash for the Kings. They did get a win, but it came over the hapless Rockets. From there, they lost two games in which they struggled to get stops against Atlanta and Charlotte. Sound familiar?
27. Detroit Pistons (10-29, Last week — 27th)
New week, same story. Detroit’s peripherals still don’t look as bad as you would think. Detroit is still losing over and over again. The Pistons are 0-3 since the break and they’ve dropped seven of the last eight. That includes a Monday night loss in which the team’s leading scorer posted only 15 points.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (9-30, Last week — 30th)
The Wolves still have the NBA’s worst record, but they’ve won two out of the last three games. That is more than enough to earn a bump in the pecking order. The first win was a 30-point drubbing of New Orleans, then Minnesota used 34 points (!) from Anthony Edwards to defeat Portland on Sunday.
29. Orlando Magic (13-26, Last week — 28th)
Things aren’t quite as dire in Orlando as they are in Houston (see below), but it isn’t great. The Magic lost their final five games before the All-Star break and then lost three more in a row as they emerged from the hiatus. Nikola Vucevic has been brilliant, but an eight-game losing skid likely saw Orlando’s already faint playoff hopes evaporate.
30. Houston Rockets (11-26, Last week — 29th)
Remember when the Rockets were 11-10? Houston flashed just above the .500 mark with a win over Memphis on Feb. 4. Unfortunately, that is the last time the Rockets won a game. Losing 16 straight is grounds for alarm, even if the injury story is bleak and Houston is in a full-blown organizational transition.