Dion Waiters knows when he’s at his best.
“It’s when I’m aggressive, when I’m attacking and just making plays for myself and others,” Waiters said after the Heat’s loss Tuesday night at Golden State when he finished 4-of-17 from the field shooting with eight points, but also led the team with eight assists including four dishes to Hassan Whiteside that led to dunks or tip-ins.
“I know if I can get in the paint I can make something happen.”
Waiters, 25, has never been an exceptionally efficient player. He’s a career 40.8 percent shooter and is shooting a career-low 37.2 percent this season with the Heat.
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But on a team that leads the league in drives to the basket (34.8 per game) and converts at the second-lowest field goal percentage (43.1), he’s not only got the green light to keep attacking, he’s being encouraged to because it helps free up Whiteside around the rim.
“I tell Dion all the time, ain’t nobody can stay in front of him in the league,” said Whiteside, who has collected 26 assists from Waiters this season, second only to Goran Dragic (47) on the team. “He can get in the paint when he wants to. When he gets in the paint, even if he doesn’t score, he creates so much you don’t really need pick-and-roll. He creates so much offense and triggers for us. And I’m always in his ear, ‘Get in the paint. Don’t let anybody off.’”
Finishing at the rim when he doesn’t pass the ball off is Waiters’ biggest issue. Of the 44 players in the league to average at least six drives to the basket per game, Waiters ranks 43rd in field goal percentage (37.9 percent). Only teammate Justise Winslow, who is out for the season, makes his own shot on drives to the basket less often (36.5 percent).
Still, Waiters’ ability to create on drives to the basket – whether he finishes or not – remains his most effective offensive tool.
As a perimeter shooter, he’s shooting only 24.4 percent (19-of-78) on pull-ups, 31.3 percent (52-of-166) on jumpers, and 41.5 percent (27-of-65) on catch-and-shoot opportunities. In Tuesday’s loss at Golden State, Waiters was 3-of-7 on drives within 10 feet of the basket and 1-of-10 from the rest of the field.
Before team doctors discovered he had a small groin tear that forced him to miss 20 games from the end of November until he rejoined the Heat (11-29) on the second game of this six-game road trip, Waiters was playing well. In his final eight games before the injury, he was shooting 41.8 percent from the field, 34.2 percent from three-point range and averaging 18.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.1 steals.
“Watching that last Milwaukee game [Nov. 17], right before he got hurt, that was him at his best basketball with us,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday. “So we’ll work to get him back to that level first and then see if we can continue to improve him as the season goes on. I think right before he got hurt that was arguably the best basketball of his career for three, four games.”
▪ Whiteside, who leads the league in rebounding (14.4 per game), ranks fifth in blocks (2.22), and 11th overall in efficiency (25.4), dropped out of the top 10 among Eastern Conference frontcourt players in the All-Star fan vote on Thursday. He had been ninth after the first round of voting.
“When he gets to the next level of really impacting us winning I think the view of him and his impact will change,” Spoelstra said Thursday in Milwaukee. “He’s getting there. You saw it the other night, a great performance, the attention to detail, great energy, he was impactful and strong in the paint both ends of the court.
“But again, it’s the consistency. Can you bank on that and book it every single night? And then whatever five to 10 plays more you have to make to help get your team a win. I think that’s where he is right now.”
The last time the Heat didn’t have a player selected as an All-Star was Dwyane Wade’s rookie season in 2003-04. This year’s game is Feb. 19 in New Orleans.
▪ The Heat had only 10 healthy players in uniform available Friday night in Milwaukee. Backup center Willie Reed was held out with a bruised sternum and guard Josh Richardson, whom the team was hoping to have back, missed his third consecutive game with a sprained left foot.
“[Reed] took a big-time elbow to the chest from [DeMarcus] Cousins [last week in Sacramento] and re-aggravated it last game,” Spoelstra said Friday. “With Josh, every time he started to do workouts without the boot he still felt pain. Even though he was able to do things and it didn’t feel as painful as it did before, there was some progress. But it wasn’t enough progress to play.”