Just one year after posting the worst record in the NBA, a Dwyane Wade-inspired Miami Heat are in the playoffs and brimming with confidence.
|Wade has set an example to Heat's younger stars [GALLO/GETTY]
The Heat begin their first round playoff against the Atlanta Hawks in Georgia after producing the biggest turnaround from a bottom placed team the league has seen in 40 years.
Last season, they finished bottom of the Eastern Conference with a dismal 15-67 record, the joint worst in the franchise's 21-year history.
Twelve months on, Miami finished fifth in the East with a 43-39 record and Wade, who endured a miserable injury-riddled season last year, finished the league's top scorer with an average of 30.2 points per match.
Not that bad
Coach Erik Spoelstra, who took over from the experienced Pat Riley – who guided Miami to the title in 2006 but then struggled to stop their slump – says the Heat were never as bad as their results last year suggested.
"Ultimately our group, the guys on the team, are probably better than most people give them credit for," he said ahead of Sunday's match with the Hawks.
"A lot of them were written off – as castaways, fringe NBA players, or too young to contribute.
"We have a lot of guys who have a lot of pride and take that personally and that helped to contribute to a quick turnaround.
"I think one day in the summer, we will be able to look back on it and see that this sort of thing doesn't happen very often, it really doesn't."
Captain Wade, who joined the Heat in the 2003 draft, has found the best form of his career and his role has been critical to the turnaround.
During the off-season, Wade was part of the US team who won the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics and experienced teammate Udonis Haslem said that gave his season real momentum.
"He took his Olympic experience and his dominance in the Games and just carried it over into the season," Haslem said.
"I've been watching him for six years here and every year he has matured.
"Defensively, blocking shots, he's running the team, getting guys on the ball – he just continues to evolve every year."
Like Wade and the now-retired Alonzo Mourning, Haslem spent much of last season on the sidelines and the Heat's campaign also suffered from the mid-season trade of Shaquille O'Neal to Phoenix.
|Beasley has made the step up from college basketball [GALLO/GETTY]
Usually it is trades that lead to upsurges in form but Miami have bounced back with many of the same faces from last year plus rookie Michael Beasley and mid-season arrival of Jermain O'Neal from Toronto.
Spoelstra says it has been the attitude of Haslem and Wade – both with six years on the team – that has been the critical element as they chose to set an example in the locker room.
"Dwyane and Udonis with their leadership, particularly early on in training camp but also every single day in practice, they set the tone for the young guys," he said.
"Our young players fast-tracked much faster than they would have if they didn't see the veteran players and our best player Dwyane, practising with them, in the trenches with them."
Beasley, the second pick overall in the 2008 draft, found chances limited initially but he has had more minutes on the court in the final stages of the regular season and is now showing the talent that earned him such a stellar reputation in college basketball.
His matter-of-fact response to the season is typical of a team who have not allowed their wounded pride to turn into boastfulness this year.
"There have been some ups and some downs, but we are in the playoffs and have a chance to compete for the championship, I can't ask for more from a first year," he said.