When James Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal to stay with the Miami Heat this summer, most assumed he was leaving his bench buddy Tyler Johnson behind and heading straight for the starting lineup.
He still might, but it’s become clear coach Erik Spoelstra could prefer not to mess with a good thing.
For the second preseason game in a row, Spoelstra went with Johnson off the bench and 7-footer Kelly Olynyk in the starting lineup alongside center Hassan Whiteside. And the decision looked like a better fit for both.
Before the Heat came back late to beat the Charlotte Hornets 109-106 at AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday night, Olynyk and the starters put on a pretty good show, building an 18-15 lead in the first quarter and then rallying the Heat in the second half. When Spoelstra turned to the Johnsons and the bench, the lead often only grew from there.
The story was similar to what happened Saturday in Orlando against the Magic, where Spoelstra said Olynyk was a good fit with the starting lineup and James Johnson played his best game of the preseason. Johnson, 30, said Monday coming off the bench is his “comfort zone.”
“When I play James Johnson at that position I do not feel that we’re small. Ever,” Spoelstra said of the power forward position. “His wingspan is over seven feet. He’s every bit a 7-footer as everybody else.
“Kelly has a different skill set and his ability to shoot and make plays off the dribble. We like that. We feel that’s a great fit and can be good fit with our second unit or he can play alongside Hassan. Whoever starts, I’m not there yet right now.”
In his first two preseason starts, Johnson scored just four points (2-of-9 shooting, 0-of-4 three-point range) and had as many turnovers (three) as he had assists in 39 combined minutes. He was also a team-worst minus-19 through his first two games.
In 27 minutes off the bench Saturday in Orlando, Johnson was 4-of-12 shooting (0-4 three-point range), but finished with eight points, four rebounds, four assists and one turnover. Monday against the Hornets, he had 13 points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in 24 minutes.
Johnson said when he starts the challenge for him is different than when he comes off the bench.
“More rebounding,” he said. “I’ve got to do more, different things to contribute to that first unit. That’s what I’m talking about working on. I need to help Hassan rebound. That also allows my bust outs and lets [Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters] run the floor. Then I can get us into sets from there. Other than that, [I’ve got to] let them handle the ball and be who they are.”
Olynyk was rotated in as the backup center for most of the night Monday. He finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, two steals and two blocks in 29 minutes.
▪ The Heat shot 70 percent and led 36-29 after one quarter with the Johnsons leading the way with seven points each. The lead expanded to 45-34 when Tyler Johnson scored his final bucket of the half on an Olynyk assist with 8:39 left.
The Hornets went on a 15-0 run after that to take the lead with James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Justise Winlsow, Okaro White and Bam Adebayo on the floor for most of it.
The Heat regained the lead 100-99 with 4:51 left on a Josh Richardson dunk. Spoelstra pulled all of his rotation players — except for Winslow — right after that. Richardson and Tyler Johnson led the Heat with 18 points each.
Winslow, who struggled early with four turnovers, scored the final four points of the game.
▪ Goran Dragic missed his second consecutive game, part of the maintenance program Spoelstra has the Heat’s starting point guard on after he led Slovenia to the EuroBasket gold medal last month during a grueling three-week run.
“We want to try to strike that balance of keeping him in shape and make sure he’s peaking for the first game and not going the other way,” Spoelstra said. “And I think we’re heading that way.”
▪ After struggling through his first two preseason games (nine points, 4-of-16 shooting), Dion Waiters had another good game with 14 points, four rebounds and eight assists in 26 minutes.
Whiteside finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds in 24 minutes.