Rodney McGruder won the Heat’s vigorous preseason conditioning test last week.
The scrappy, 6-5, 200-pound undrafted second-year guard hasn’t won the starting job at small forward yet, but if opening night preseason starting lineups are worth anything it’s safe to say he’s leading that race too.
Sunday night, it was McGruder, and not Justise Winslow or Josh Richardson, who ran with the Heat’s first team – point guard Goran Dragic, shooting guard Dion Waiters, power forward James Johnson, and center Hassan Whiteside – in a 96-90 win over the Atlanta Hawks at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We see a champion. We see a winner. We see somebody that will not be denied,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of McGruder, who finished with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes. “He’s proven himself with us. As we got to know him from him helping us win a championship in Sioux Falls, also breaking into our rotation and starting for us so many games last year, he’s a winner.
“He’s so committed every single day, consistently working, diligently to improve. You see that methodical, incremental improvement where he’s a much different player. If you don’t watch him for three months he’ll be a much different player because he’s continue to improve.”
While Spoelstra said pregame he’s “still working out the rotation” and has another five preseason games to do so, McGruder started 65 games for the Heat last season when the team was ravaged by injury.
Keeping McGruder in the starting lineup would allow Spoelstra to keep three ball handlers in Richardson, Winslow and Tyler Johnson together coming off the bench along with three-point specialist Wayne Ellington and center Kelly Olynyk, a 7-foot former shooting guard who can handle the ball himself and stretch the floor with his three-point shooting as well.
We saw just how talented and lethal that second unit could be in Sunday’s win – especially with Olynyk performing and playing like the player the Heat once hoped Josh McRoberts could be.
“He’s very versatile,” Spoelstra said of Olynyk, who in his first game with the Heat finished with nine points, eight rebounds, five assists, five turnovers and plus-15 in 23 minutes of action.
“It’s been well documented that he used to be a guard. I feel very comfortable with him on the perimeter. We want ultimately to play to his strengths. But he also can play in the post. We’re open right now, open to seeing where this can go, where we can maximize that skill set as much as possible. Guys like playing with him because he’s looking to make plays for other guys, looking to make things easier for other guys. You saw that particularly in the second half.”
In the first half Sunday, Spoelstra was driven to keep his first and second units together as long as he could. When James Johnson picked up his third foul with 7:21 left in the opening quarter, though, he went to Winslow, who saw the majority of his time at power forward.
Winslow, who is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery, made his first mid-range jumper and had a nice dunk on a beautiful bounce pass from Goran Dragic in the first half. Winslow finished with six points, eight rebounds, two assists and three blocks in 23 minutes.
“You can see that there isn’t any hesitation in his play or lack of aggressiveness,” Spoelstra said. “He’s being who he is meant to be and that’s a player, a guy who makes winning plays. This is the kind of statline that we’re looking for. It’s not about anything, just contributing in a lot of different ways. Only six shot attempts. That might be different some games, but he had his fingerprints on a lot of different plays.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Richardson, who left Saturday’s scrimmage with a bloody nose, replaced McGruder at small forward when he went to the bench. He did arguably his best work Sunday when he started the second half at point guard.
He blocked Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder twice early in the third quarter and finished with four in the game. Richardson added 12 points, four rebounds and two steals in a little less than 25 minutes of action.
▪ Tyler Johnson led all Heat scorers with 14 points (6-of-8 field goals), but had four turnovers and no assists in 17 minutes as the backup point guard.
▪ Whiteside, who said on Heat media day he thought he could shoot 80 percent or better from the free throw line this season, finished 4-of-7 from the stripe. He finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and a block in 19 minutes of work.
▪ Forward Okaro White was the only other rotational player from last season who played through the first three quarters.
Spoelstra, who said pregame he was going to limit players’ minutes, didn’t play Dragic in the second half. Spoelstra emptied the bench with a little under six minutes to play.
▪ Rookie first round pick Bam Adebayo, who has drawn rave reviews all summer and in training camp, made his debut with 5:50 remaining in the fourth quarter. He scored his first point and only points from the free throw line. He finished 1-of-8 from the line.
“I was nervous,” Adebayo said. “I think I rushed most of my free throws. But it’s my first game so. Now, next game I know. Relax.”
▪ The Heat, like it did all of last season, locked arms during the playing of the national anthem as a way of taking a stand against social and racial injustice.
“We are an organization that honors the military, honor the flag, honor our soldiers that have committed their lives for this country,” coach Erik Spoelstra said before Sunday’s preseason opener against the Atlanta Hawks. “We also want our players to absolutely have a voice for the displeasure of what they’re seeing around the country. And we encourage our guys to express themselves absolutely in the right way.”