On Sunday evening, with Goran Dragic sidelined due to a cartoonish-looking eye injury, the Miami Heat’s four-game winning streak was snapped by the Indiana Pacers. Despite Miami’s valiant effort in the fourth quarter, Indiana escaped Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a 102-98 victory. Still, despite that minor setback, Erik Spoelstra and company will keep on marching towards the playoffs in the face of all odds, predictions, and common sense. 

Following Sunday evening’s game against the Pacers, the Heat are 32-35, closing in on the .500 mark, and just a game out of the playoffs, two ideas which you would have been run offline or out of publication for suggesting were possible a few months back. On Jan. 14, after losing their fourth straight game the night before, the Heat were 11-30, with only the lowly Brooklyn Nets ahead of them in the freefall for the best lottery odds. 

Justise Winslow was out for the season, and with the team struggling to the extent that they were, it would have been quite easy, and frankly understandable, if they had decided to pack things in, try to get a top pick in a loaded draft, and prepare for the future. Which, is essentially the plan Pat Riley had outlined earlier in the season. 

Via the Miami Herald:

You go back and you look at it, we’re in a rebuild with young players that we’re familiar with and we have five or six guys that we really like. They will form a nucleus, two or three them. […] we love our young core. And what we have is flexibility. And you need flexibility in this league to be able to move quickly. You can’t get paralyzed by the cap or not being able to make room and being able to trade players. I think the No. 1 asset that we have right now is our flexibility moving forward. We have a first-round pick this year. So we’re dealing with it.

We’re dealing with that word that you hate to use -- that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild quick. I’m not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami.

On Jan. 17, however, everything changed. That night they withstood a 40-point triple-double from James Harden to stun the Houston Rockets, kicking off the most remarkable stretch any team in the league has put together this year, winning 13 straight games, a streak that set a new NBA record for the longest winning streak by a team under .500, and still stands as the most wins in a row by any team this season. 

Dion Waiters is in the midst of a career year in Miami. USATSI

Starting with that game against the Rockets, the Heat have won 21 of their last 26 games, the best record in the league in that timespan, and they’ve beaten the Warriors, the Raptors, and have two wins each against the Cavaliers, Rockets and Hawks. They have the best 3-point percentage (40.3), the second-best defensive rating (102.2), and the second-best net rating (8.3), over that stretch. 

It’s a run that would be impressive no matter the team, but given Miami’s roster it seems something out of a movie. There are no All-Stars on the roster, only Goran Dragic (2014 All-Third Team) has made an All-NBA Team, and nine different players have D-League experience. 

As Michael Lee of the Vertical put it recently on “The Vertical Podcast with Woj”:

“You go down the list of the guys on that team, and you see who’s all having career years, and who’s all thriving, and it’s amazing. There have been times where I’d look at that Heat roster, and go, wait, I know myself, I’ve been covering the league for a long time, there are guys I have NEVER heard of.”

Spoelstra has long been underrated by many, but that should no longer be the case after this season. His ability to take a ragtag roster and not only get them to improve, but to have them playing as well as any team in the league is a testament to his ability as a coach. Instead of the season going even further off the rails, or players starting to play for themselves and new contracts, Spoelstra galvanized the squad and turned them into a team suddenly no one wants to play. 

Goran Dragic is carving up opposing defenses, Hassan Whiteside is a consistent force inside, Dion Waiters and James Johnson are having the best seasons of their career. That’s right, Waiters and Johnson -- who would’ve of guessed it? And that’s without getting into Rodney McGruder and Okaro White -- guys who have never even played in the NBA before this season -- playing important minutes. 

There’s no way a team with as little talent as Miami could go from 11-30 to 32-34 in the span of two months if they didn’t believe in their leader. Regardless of whether or not Miami is able to complete the remarkable turnaround and make the playoffs, there should be no debate: Spoelstra is the coach of the year. 

Miami still has two meetings against Toronto and Washington, and games against Boston and Cleveland. Even if the miracle run falls short, however, this hot stretch by Miami is the very essence of why we love sports. Here is this goofy group of guys forced together through bad luck and desperation not only going toe-to-toe with the super teams like Golden State and Cleveland, but beating them. It’s the type of story everyone imagines, but only rarely ever comes true. Only this year, on South Beach, it has.