Rodney McGruder had to scrap and claw to make the Heat’s roster this preseason.
These days, with the Heat severely short-handed at small forward, the 6-5, 200-pound rookie is doing the same trying to guard opponents above his weight class.
On Tuesday night, it was nine-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony (6-8, 240), who rang McGruder and the Heat up for 35 points. On Friday and Saturday night when Miami travels to the frigid Midwest to face Cleveland and Chicago, McGruder will likely be guarding four-time MVP LeBron James (6-8, 250) and two-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (6-7, 231).
It hardly seems like a fair fight for the undrafted former D-League guard. But there’s a reason Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has turned to him to fill the void with Justise Winslow out.
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Entering Wednesday night’s game, opponents were shooting 49.2 percent with McGruder guarding them — five percent higher than their normal average. That’s still better than other healthy options Spoelstra could turn to to guard opposing wings like Wayne Ellington (plus-8.1 percent field-goal differential) and Derrick Williams (plus-18.1 percent). James Johnson is the top defender on the team in field-goal differential (minus-11.7 percent).
“This league, it’s for competitors only, and that’s why Rodney is here,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a great competitor, and when he had to fight and scrap to make this roster, those were the qualities we saw in summer league, we saw in Sioux Falls, he showed us in training camp, he showed us in the preseason, and now he’s making us play him. But he doesn’t back down from any matchup because of that toughness and the willingness and want to compete every night.”
Wednesday’s game against the Hawks was McGruder’s ninth start of the season. Other than Miami’s loss to the Bulls on Nov. 10, he’s played in every game and is one of only three players on the roster who hasn’t missed a game because of injury.
In a season that continues to slip away from the Heat, Goran Dragic said there’s a positive in that young players like McGruder, who could be a part of the future since he’s making the league minimum, are getting a chance to guard players like Anthony and play a lot of minutes.
McGruder said he felt like he did a good job to slow Anthony down early. The Knicks forward started 1 of 7 from the field but eventually caught fire. McGruder said guarding players like Anthony, who he says has been his toughest defensive assignment ever, will be beneficial in the long run, and right now he feels like he’s in school.
“When you get a guy like Melo you can’t let him catch and shoot the ball so low in the post because that just makes it easier for him,” he said. “You try to force his catch further out. He knows where he wants the ball.
“Guys like him and Kobe [Bryant] do a great job getting to their spots. You can’t do anything. They work on getting to that spot so many times. If he misses, it’s because he misses. The key is doing the work early, not letting them get to those spots.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Dragic said the stinger in his left shoulder, which he sustained Tuesday when the Knicks’ Brandon Jennings landed on top of him elbow-first, is the first of his career. Dragic said before Wednesday’s game that he still feels numbness and tingling when he dribbles, but not to the extent he did Tuesday night.
“It could take weeks, it could take one day, three days, half an hour [to get over it],” Dragic said. “You don’t know. Everybody is different.”
Dragic said it doesn’t matter how much pain he’s in, he’s always going to tell Spoelstra he can play. So far, Dragic has missed three games because of a sprained left ankle and two more with a strained left elbow. He said it was ultimately the Heat’s decision to keep him out of those games.
▪ With only nine healthy players available on the three-game trip, two former Heat players, assistants Chris Quinn and Juwan Howard, have served as the 10th man in practices, Spoelstra said.
“They still are in great shape,” he said. “Literally they probably could give us seven or eight minutes. I’ll have to talk to Pat [Riley] about that and see if we can suit them up or get some kind of exception for those two.”