The Morning After: #JustiseBetter Now Mainstream, Surging Heat Nearly Ace Post-Christmas Litmus Test to Toronto

Commentary

The holidays have always been a period of transition for the NBA. Football season is coming to a close, and basketball will soon dominate the conversations on every one of ESPN’s countless debate shows. As always, Christmas day gave us a slate of highly-anticipated NBA matchups, giving fans a feel for the most interesting teams across the league as we enter the heart of the regular season.

It’s a day for evaluation, a chance to see whether teams are meeting their preseason expectations, a moment to consider who should be selling and who should be buying as the NBA Trade Deadline approaches.

While the Miami Heat were left out of the Christmas day festivities, their Dec. 26 matchup against the Toronto Raptors seemed fitting with the season. Miami has been playing well as of late, Justise Winslow has officially taken the reins as the team’s starting point guard, and the league-leading Raptors offered an interesting test. If the Heat could go toe to toe with the Raptors, they could presumably compete with anyone in the East.

For a team that seems stuck between contention and rebuilding, the matchup offered hope for a bit of clarity. Can Miami make a run in the playoffs or should they cut their losses and sacrifice this season in favor of long-term success? What this game did to answer those questions depends on how much stock you’re willing to put in the Heat’s performance.

Miami got off to an incredible start, with everyone firing on all cylinders. Justise Winslow looked confident at the point, directing the offense, nailing threes, and competing with Kawhi Leonard on both ends of the court.

If this game answered any questions, it confirmed that Winslow has the ability to thrive as a starting point guard.

Tyler Johnson was another bright spot. After some long slumps, he’s shown some of what earned him that infamous contract. His hot shooting against the Orlando Magic on Sunday carried into Wednesday, and he did just about everything you could ask from him.

That was the story for a lot of guys last night. They did what you knew they could do and hoped they would do. Derrick Jones Jr. gave us some flashy plays, James Johnson contributed plenty, Josh Richardson looked like Josh Richardson.

While Winslow shined, Hassan Whiteside also had a standout performance. He had one of those games where he just seemed to “get it.” He was giving effort on both ends of the floor, making his mark on defense while playing smart-skilled offense. People say this anytime he has one of these games, but if he can give this kind of effort and focus every night, the sky’s the limit.

Their hot start got Miami out to a big lead early, but it disappeared by the end of the third quarter. It happens. The NBA is a game of runs, and the Heat have never been known for strong third quarters. They didn’t let the Raptors take over though, and the fourth quarter was highly contested with the two squads trading blows until the final buzzer.

Miami lost 104-106. Whether you want to view this as a moral victory is entirely up to you. The Heat fought hard and played to the final second against the top team in the NBA standings. The Christmas season is for seeing what your team is made of, and if you’re looking for a silver lining, you could easily argue that the Heat have what it takes to go toe to toe with anyone in the Eastern Conference.

Many will understandably resist that interpretation. A loss is a loss is a loss and Miami lost. What else is there to say? “Moral victory” is just a euphemism that losers use to feel better about being losers. The Raptors were missing Kyle Lowry, and Miami still couldn’t come out on top.

For a team still looking to work their way into the playoff picture, it is difficult to come away from a loss feeling happy. This could be proof to you that Miami simply doesn’t have what it takes. Even on their best night, they fall short. They may be better off selling off anyone they can at the trade deadline and working for a high pick in an impressive 2019 NBA Draft class.

You may think nothing of this game. It was entertaining. It was encouraging. It was disappointing. But ultimately, it was one game in a long regular season. We just saw the Golden State Warriors get blown out by the Los Angeles Lakers and no one is that worried about them. You may think it is ridiculous to take anything away from a single game. That is fair.

Regardless of how you feel, this game and the team’s recent stretch is significant to how Miami approaches the next few months. The trade deadline is coming quickly, and Pat Riley needs to decide what kind of team this is. Will they try to sell at the deadline? Given their recent play, it’s hard to see him giving up on the year. Dion Waiters looks like he may be ready to enter the lineup soon, and Goran Dragic should be back by spring. That should give them an extra boost.

At the very least, Miami looks like a playoff team, and this game seemed to show that they have the  potential to be more than a quick first-round exit. As 2018 comes to a close, the front office will need to make decisions on what this Miami team is. This close loss to the Raptors may be huge in shaping how they perceive this season’s squad.


A personal note from the author: Hey, everyone. Merry Christmas. Last night, Justise Winslow started at point guard and continued his strong play with another 20-plus point game. He looked confident and great. He was hitting threes and finishing strong, addressing most of the major concerns with his game. As some of you may know, I’m a pretty big Justise Winslow fan. Together with @Justise_n_Jorty, I started the Twitter hashtag #JustiseBetter.

You may be familiar with it. Some of my friends at Heat Beat wrote an incredible song using the phrase.

Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have both become aware of it.

Tony Fiorentino and other prominent basketball personalities have embraced the movement, and it has grown more than I thought it could.

During the game, Eric Reid and Jason Jackson both said “Justise Better” several times, and it was jarring to hear.

Everyone seems to be on board with the #JustiseBetter movement now that he has gotten the opportunity to play at point guard and show off his talent.

All I want to say – from the bottom of my heart – is I told you so. I told all of you. You idiots doubted Justise Winslow. You called him “Bustise Winslow.” You said, “Justise keeps your wins low.” Now you all come crawling back to him, using the hashtag like you never made fun of the few of us who stayed patient and trusted his development. Look who’s laughing now. You can send in your personal apologies to the @miaheatbeat DMs. I’ll be waiting.

#JustiseBetter

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