January was a wild roller-coaster of a month for a number of Eastern Conference teams.
Cleveland won six straight, lost two of three and then fired David Blatt. Tyronn Lue closed a 6-1 run in style with Saturday night’s 117-103 rout of the Spurs.
Toronto lost two of its first three, then finished the month with 11 consecutive victories, a streak that currently ranks as the NBA’s best. The Bulls won their first four, lost the next three and then basically alternated wins and losses the rest of the way.
All of those sound like wild rides, but if you really like twists, turns and walking off with your legs wobbly and your lunch threatening to make a reappearance, hope you were on the Miami Heat bandwagon. Not only did starters Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Luol Deng all miss games, they had multiple road trips of five games or more to navigate.
After opening January with three straight wins, they lost eight of 10 and closed out with four consecutive victories.
Sunday’s 105-87 win over Atlanta, the fifth straight game they played with Amar’e Stoudemire filling at center for Whiteside, helped the Heat pass the Hawks by a half-game for first place in the Southeast Division.
Considering all the drama they’ve been through, from veiled references to Whiteside being selfish to the inability of backups Tyler Johnson and Beno Udrih to help the offense flow the way Dragic has, it’s fairly remarkable that the Heat have been able to not only stay afloat, but surge back ahead in a competitive division.
Miami will open February right back out on the road, which is nothing new since it has only played at American Airlines Arena twice since Jan. 8. The Heat won’t be back home until Feb. 7, hosting the Clippers and Spurs two nights later before the All-Star break arrives.
This week’s challenges will take the Heat to Houston, Dallas and division rival Charlotte, teams with a combined home record of 46-28. Miami is 11-12 on the road thus far, but did put together wins in Chicago, Brooklyn and Milwaukee to close its last excursion on a high note.
Johnson has been scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery, which likely means he’ll be out until very late in the regular season. There’s no timetable for Whiteside’s return from a nagging hip injury, but the Heat haven’t missed a player averaged 12.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and an NBA-best 3.9 blocked shots per game, which has fueled speculation that they may look to move him prior to the trade deadline since he’ll be seeking a maximum contract this offseason.
Rest assured, Miami’s roller-coaster ride will likely have a few more twists before the month is up.
Rockets crashing into mediocrity: At the 50-game mark a season ago, Houston was 35-15. Two seasons ago, the first in which James Harden and Dwight Howard joined forces, the Rockets went 33-17. This season, they’re 25-25 as the Heat come into town on Tuesday to begin a pre-All-Star stretch that also features a home-and-home against Portland and road games at Phoenix and Golden State.
The frustration is certainly bubbling over. Howard has been ejected in consecutive games, accumulating four technical fouls that the team is hoping the league will look at and potentially rescind.
“The last two games have been kind of tough for this ballclub,” the recently reacquired Josh Smith told ESPN Houston. “We felt like we haven’t gotten a fair whistle, but we just got to move forward and focus on having a must-win game on Tuesday.”
Must-win? In February? That slip tells you the Rockets are certainly feeling the strain of falling below everyone’s expectations. Between Howard’s injury struggles and Harden’s defensive miscues, Houston’s stars haven’t been their best. Kevin McHale already paid with his job, leaving J.B. Bickerstaff a difficult situation to work with in his first time in the head chair.
Must-win means that no matter what happens in the Heat game, you can count on the Rockets to play with a sense of urgency Thursday night in Phoenix. The Suns just fired a coach themselves, relieving Jeff Hornacek of his duties as they shop pieces like Markieff Morris around the league.
If Houston can’t find a way to pick up a win there, it might be time for a major move of their own. Following Saturday night’s home date with the Trail Blazers, the Rockets begin a stretch where they close out the month with six of seven on the road.
The only home date is against the Spurs. Following a home date to open March, Houston departs on a five-game East Coast swing. Unless they get matters figured out quickly, things could get ugly.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Email: [email protected].