The next step is when such performances no longer are viewed as the exception.
Most heartening in that regard is that Victor Oladipo is getting there.
Friday night it was 26 points in the victory over the Phoenix Suns that closed out the Heat’s 3-2 trip.
“I’ve got to keep pushing, keep grinding, see what happens,” Oladipo said, with a four-game homestand up next for the Heat, starting Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets.
With the former All-Star still finding his legs after missing the season’s first six weeks due to knee pain, and on a longer road to recovery the past four seasons from knee and quadriceps issues, coach Erik Spoelstra continues to measure Oladipo’s strides in terms of small steps.
“He’s been getting more comfortable, more confident, getting his legs under him,” Spoelstra said “And he’s a big-time X-factor for us, on both sides of the floor. “And I’ve mentioned this before — his growth and improvement and how he feels comfortable within the system and everything, that won’t be linear. It’ll be some minor ups and downs with it, because he has missed a good deal of time.
“But he is so dedicated to his film study, to his maintenance of his body. He’s feeling great. We want to keep him feeling great. And then he’s just getting more and more in rhythm. We haven’t forgotten who he was. We just enjoy being on this journey with him, along the process of getting healthy and fully acclimated with this team.”
What made Friday night so significant was the noticeable, eye-opening burst, the first step back to something closer to the 30 year old’s previous self.
“On our last trip, the first burst that he was showing was defense and his playmaking with that second unit, to keep their identity as a catch and shoot and playing as more of a facilitator,” Spoelstra said. “But as he’s getting more of game rhythm, he’s getting his legs under him. He’s getting in better condition. You’re seeing him translating that lateral burst into more of an explosive burst with the ball.
“And that can be a real difference maker for our team offensively, another guy that can put pressure on the rim and also playmake.”
Considering he played every fourth-quarter minute of the four games he appeared in during the trip, Oladipo has taken Heat trust to arguably its highest level since he was acquired at the 2021 NBA trading deadline from the Houston Rockets for Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley.
“Just going out there and playing hard on both ends of the floor,” he said. “Always great to have an impact. Just got to keep getting better, keep grinding.
“Just going to keep grinding and seeing what happens, play hard on both ends.”
The Heat picked up the remaining $1 million due on the partially guaranteed contract of forward Haywood Highsmith by Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
Highsmith will now earn the full $1.8 million NBA veteran-scale minimum for the season, also under non-guaranteed contract to the team for next season.
The move means the Heat remain within $200,000 on the salary cap of the punitive NBA luxury tax, leaving the team, based on current finances, unable to add an additional player until late in the season.
Highsmith started in Friday night’s game against the Suns in place of sidelined starting power forward Caleb Martin.
Highsmith was the lone player on the roster impacted by Saturday’s deadline, with all other contracts previously fully guaranteed for the season.
Next up for the Heat is the NBA’s hottest team, the Nets entering with victories in 13 of their past 14, tied for the league’s second-best record, at 24-8 since Jacque Vaughn replaced Steve Nash as coach.
With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the top of their games, the Nets have come to view themselves as complete contenders.
“Everybody, especially earlier in the season, ‘Oh, they need this, they need a big, they need that,’ ” center Nic Claxton said. “But we have everything we need when everybody is on the court, locked in, and we’re all scrambling, playing hard.”
That has included Irving putting the distractions aside.
“Basketball’s just a very simple artform,” Irving said according to ESPN after Friday night’s road victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. “So if I don’t bring all my extra distractions or anything that I’m going through mentally into the game, then I feel like we have a great chance of winning every ballgame.”