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Deep Miami Heat eye 'something special,' continue rise in NBA's East

Deep Miami Heat eye 'something special,' continue rise in NBA's East
Forward Caleb Martin scored a team-high 26 points off the bench to lead the Miami Heat to a 104-92 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday in Miami. Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE

MIAMI, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Like many NBA teams in the COVID-19 era, the Miami Heat consistently shuffle lineups due to isolations and injuries. But player development and experienced coaching has led the team to the top of the Eastern Conference.

In beating the Portland Trail Blazers 104-92 on Wednesday in Miami, the Heat made the latest entry in a textbook of examples for this season.

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Already without injured star Kyle Lowry (personal reasons), the Heat lost star guard Tyler Herro early Wednesday to the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocol.

Five-time All-Star Jimmy Butler didn't make it to the second half due to a second-quarter ejection Wednesday at FTX Arena. This time, it was small forward Caleb Martin who stepped up with a team-high 26 points to lead the Heat to its sixth victory in seven games.

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"Look, I've said this before. These are high-class challenges," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters at his postgame news conference. "We want to play for something special.

"You need depth. You need talent, and I think everybody in our locker room feels like we are extremely capable if we have to go deep into our roster."

At the start of the season, the Heat envisioned flooding the floor with a consistent core of Butler, Lowry, Adebayo and Herro. The team played without three of its Top-4 scorers Wednesday.

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The Butler-Lowry-Adebayo-Herro combination appeared together in just 11 of the team's first 45 games, yet the Heat lead the Eastern Conference with 29 wins.

Martin was the main scoring threat Wednesday. Adebayo anchored the Heat defense and finished the Blazers with 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Heat bench totaled 58 points, compared to a dozen from the Blazers' bench.

"It shows you how selfless all of our guys are down the lineup," Martin said. "A lot of credit to our vets and our best players. They don't try to steal the spotlight. They don't need the attention.

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"They are cool with however it goes down and for us to get a win, it's fine. It doesn't matter who is bringing it or who is in the spotlight."

The Heat lead the Eastern Conference with 39.4 bench points per game. Herro's 20.8 points per game off the bench are the most in the NBA among players with multiple appearances.

The Heat also lead the league in points per game (11.1) scored by a players with two-way contracts. A fill-in group of Martin, Kyle Guy, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven and other overlooked players not only keep the team afloat. They help the Heat keep pace with the league's best.

Two-way players are paid half the NBA's minimum salary through non-guaranteed contracts. They can appear in up to 50 NBA games and are eligible for the G League, but can be released at any time.

"We have that underdog mentality," Adebayo said. "It's just how it goes. Like Caleb has been playing out of his mind. He's been doing it all season.

"A lot of the guys aren't on the scouting report, so they're very underrated. We have so much depth that anybody can check in and impact the game."

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Spoelstra says production from the under-scouted crew isn't an anomaly. It's to be expected based on how the Heat run offensive and defensive systems.

"We're past all of that," Spoelstra said. "These guys have earned the trust in these opportunities where they have proven themselves to be able to really contribute to wins, in tough ones.

"Clearly, we were going to have to get [Wednesday's] game in the mud. We were really going to have to defend and make it tough."

The Heat (29-16) will go for its third-consecutive win with a game against the Atlanta Hawks (19-25) at 7:30 p.m. EST Friday in Atlanta.

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