MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade still cringes as he thinks back to his initial reaction when NBA schedules were released last summer and he saw the gauntlet that awaited the Miami Heat in the first month of 2016.
Total January games: 17
Total January road games: 12
"It's the toughest [stretch of a] schedule I've dealt with in my 13 years," Wade said on Sunday night. "When it came out, you looked at this month and you were like, 'Whew. That's going to be a crazy month.' So to come out of it -- especially with everything we dealt with and went through -- playing our best basketball, it shows how strong willed this team is at times. We could have gone the other way."
Instead, the Heat survived with a 9-8 mark and are headed north on every front -- figuratively, literally and in the standings too.
Midway through the month, Miami was in the midst of a demoralizing four-game losing streak and barely had eight healthy bodies available to get through games. But today, things are looking up on the Heat's injury status. Wade's bruised shoulders are healing, Goran Dragic is back from a strained calf that sidelined him for nearly three weeks, Luol Deng survived a scary eye injury, Beno Udrih overcame a neck sprain and Josh McRoberts resurfaced from a mysterious knee injury that forced him out two months.
That gave Sunday's 105-87 home victory over Atlanta the feeling of a reunion of sorts for the Heat (27-21), who celebrated the occasion with Miami-based super producer DJ Khaled holding a postgame concert on the concourse outside AmericanAirlines Arena. It was a one-game stopover for the Heat, who returned from a five-game trip to play the Hawks and depart again on Monday to face the Rockets, Mavericks and Hornets to open February.
By the time the Heat return home again for Sunday's pre-Super Bowl matinee matchup with the Clippers, they will have played 14 of 16 games on the road. It's a stretch that could have broken the Heat, considering the rash of injuries that piled on top of lopsided losses at one point a few weeks ago. Instead, they've bonded through it and pulled themselves up from eighth to third in the East standings.
They've won four consecutive games for the first time since LeBron James' departure, having failed six different times since the start of the 2014-15 season to extend a three-game winning streak. The Heat didn't need Khaled's beats to help establish any rhythm on Sunday. They've been in one for more than a week after building on wins over the Bulls, Nets and Bucks by cruising to a 20-point lead over the Hawks in the first half.
It almost seems silly that a four-game winning streak would mean so much to the Heat, considering a couple of key components still remain from the Big Three run that featured four straight trips to the Finals, two championships and a 27-game winning streak. But in a post-LeBron era that has largely sputtered through injuries, roster turnover and a 64-66 record, Miami hardly takes incremental progress for granted.
"We wanted to do something different this time," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of extending the current win streak. "In the month of January, everyone talks about how crazy it is. These are always opportunities to grow or feel sorry for yourself and make excuses. It did not go how we wanted it to go for some of the month, but at the end, we finished 9-8."
And they might only be getting started.
Through injuries and adversity, this team gained a collective appreciation for its individual parts. When Dragic was out for eight games, the Heat's offense collapsed and the ball movement was nonexistent. Miami committed 96 turnovers through the first five games without Dragic, which also coincided with Udrih sitting out three of those games with his neck injury.
"It just seemed like the injury bug was going around the locker room, and it was looking bad for a minute. We're trying to be one of the top teams in the East. To do that, we just had to get over those humps." Chris Bosh
"I told [Dragic] that I probably miss him more than his wife does," Wade said of his backcourt mate two weeks ago during the second of Miami's two lengthy January trips.
But as players returned to the lineup, the Heat's overall performance improved. Dragic and Udrih have stabilized an offense that has averaged 104.7 points over the past three games. Amar'e Stoudemire has filled in better than expected at center for Hassan Whiteside, who has missed the past five games with an oblique injury. Stoudemire is establishing chemistry with Wade on pick-and-roll attacks and set his season highs with 13 points and 12 rebounds against the Hawks.
Stoudemire heads into Tuesday's game in Houston looking to build on his first double-double since he was in a New York Knicks uniform two years ago. The Heat have also restored their dominant level of defense, with Sunday marking the 15th game this season that they held an opponent below 40 percent shooting from the field, which is most in the league.
"It's small victories, especially coming from where we were coming from," Bosh said. "It just seemed like the injury bug was going around the locker room, and it was looking bad for a minute. We're trying to be one of the top teams in the East. To do that, we just had to get over those humps."
On paper, there isn't a stretch in the schedule that appeared more bumpy than January.
Last month's priority for the Heat was to endure the turbulence. Now the aim is to fortify as a team. A month that could have torn them apart has had the opposite effect.
January drew the Heat as close together as they've been since training camp.