Philadelphia 76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor talks to Basketball Insiders about his transition to the NBA, how he’s growing alongside his new teammates, what he has learned from veterans like Elton Brand and Carl Landry and what goals he is setting for the second half of the 2015-16 NBA season.
Injuries, Tough Schedule Challenge the HEAT
The Miami HEAT are in the midst of their most difficult stretch of the season.
They had one of the NBA’s easiest schedules in the opening months of the 2015-16 season, with 20 of their first 30 games played at home. They performed well during that span early on, as expected, and were near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for quite some time.
However, it was clear that we would learn a lot about this team in January and February. That’s when their schedule would provide many challenges. Both months featured games against a ton of playoff teams, as well as plenty of road contests. In January alone, their schedule included two long road trips (six games and five games), four back-to-backs and one stretch where they’d be playing 11 of 12 games on the road.
They opened January with three straight wins over talented teams: the Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers. But they have struggled since, going 2-7 the rest of the month (with their only wins coming against the struggling Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets). They have dropped six of their last seven games.
Then, their schedule for the month of February is brutal too. They face a number of very talented teams, including four of the top five teams in the Western Conference – the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. And in February, their away games once again outnumber their home games, which is a problem for a team that is currently 8-11 on the road. Their entire February schedule is listed to the right.
The only thing more challenging than Miami’s schedule is the fact that they’ve been playing without many of their key players recently. Injuries have been piling up for Miami, which has contributed to their poor record in the month of January. It has become a serious concern for the team since so many players are sidelined.
Last night against the Washington Wizards, Miami was without Dwyane Wade (shoulder), Goran Dragic (calf, out for fifth straight game), Beno Udrih (neck, out for third straight game) and Chris Andersen (left knee).
Then, during the second quarter of the game, Hassan Whiteside sustained a non-contact injury and he was forced to leave the game holding his left side. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Luol Deng was poked in his right eye and had to go to the locker room with a towel covering his face.
That means six HEAT players were unavailable in last night’s game. And to get an idea of how important those six players are, they are averaging a combined 58.8 points, 26.1 rebounds and 14.6 assists this season.
At the moment, Miami has just eight healthy players on their roster.
“The toughest part about it is that you always worry about the health of your teammate, first and foremost,” Chris Bosh told reporters. “You always want guys to be as healthy as possible, but when it’s another guy going down, it’s just tough. Two weeks ago, we were going into a West Coast road trip, really trying to prove ourselves with a whole roster and now we’ve got six guys out. It’s just a tough pill to swallow.”
With so many veterans out, the team has relied on young players like Tyler Johnson (23 years old), Justise Winslow (19) and Josh Richardson (22) – all of whom played 35+ minutes last night against the Wizards. Jarnell Stokes (22) also played a handful of minutes, making his debut for the HEAT after joining the team in November as part of the Mario Chalmers trade with the Memphis Grizzlies.
While Bosh acknowledged that this has been extremely hard on the team, he believes this stretch will be very beneficial for the young players since they’re gaining valuable experience.
“We’re constantly just trying to digest what’s going on, take the hit on the chin and then regroup,” Bosh said. “Our young guys are trying [to fill in], but they’re inexperienced and they’re really learning on the fly. I think the best part about it is it’s going to help us in the long run because these guys are getting minutes under stressful situations, and that’s how it’s going to be later on.”
For Miami’s sake, hopefully Whiteside and Deng aren’t seriously injured. Fortunately, it seems Wade will able to return soon, as he tested his shoulder prior to Wednesday’s game and nearly played, but was a late scratch.
Miami needs all of the healthy bodies they can get right now. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has had to make some significant changes to his game plan due to the injuries shortening his rotation.
“Toward the end of the third quarter, guys were running out of gas,” Spoelstra said. “Tyler was absolutely gassed. CB and Amar’e played all the way until about the four-minute mark. I had to get guys out, I couldn’t stagger it the way I normally do. We thought we would be able to hold the floor and we weren’t able to [do it].”
Spoelstra is hoping that the team can continue to make strides despite the injuries and challenging schedule. He admitted that this is a difficult spot for any team to find themselves in.
“You still have opportunities to build habits and that’s what we’re reminding our guys every timeout,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve all been around this league long enough [to know] it happens virtually to every team at some point.
“You just have to weather the storm. This too will pass, hopefully sooner than later, and that’s my mind frame on it.”
With their recent losses, the HEAT have dropped to the seventh seed in the East with a 23-20 record. Despite their struggles, Miami still has the sixth-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions. However, they have left a lot to be desired on the offensive end, scoring just 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Miami’s next game is on Friday on the road against the Toronto Raptors.
New Basketball Insiders Podcast
The latest episode of the Basketball Insiders Podcast is available. This installment features senior NBA writers Moke Hamilton and Ben Dowsett discussing their East and West All-Star selections, the race for the eighth seed in each conference and which players should make the 12-man Olympic roster. Listen below:
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