It’s easy to look back and peg Dwyane Wade’s return to the Miami Heat as the starting point of when Justise Winslow started to play some of his best basketball as a pro because there are statistics to support it.
For starters, in the 119 minutes Wade and Winslow have spent together on the floor, the Heat has outscored its opponents by 34 points. And in the 13 games since Wade’s return on Feb. 8, Winslow has been more productive (9.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals) and has shot the ball better (46.0% FG, 53.6% 3FG) than he did in his first 41 games (6.5 points, 5.4 rebonds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 40.9% FG, 40% 3FG).
But giving the bulk of the credit to Wade would be an injustice. Wade, 36, didn’t play in Monday night’s 115-99 loss to Portland and Winslow, 21, was still arguably the second-best player on the floor for the Heat behind All-Star Goran Dragic without him.
The third-year forward out of Duke matched a career-high with 13 rebounds and then scored 10 of his 15 points as the Heat went on an 18-2 run to trim what was a 19-point fourth quarter deficit to 93-90 with 6:38 to play. It was a performance that continues to prove Winslow is improving regardless of who else is on the court with him.
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“He was facilitating, getting us organized into offense and then when it was time to be aggressive, he dropped his shoulder and got to the rim a few times,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Winslow’s performance Monday. “He probably could have drawn a couple of fouls — there was a lot of contact on those drives. But he’s been doing that, he’s been trending that way recently. The 13 rebounds were notable and defensively he was in the right spots in the second half, but then you also noticed him when he had to take on the challenge with their two main guys.”
The truth is since the NBA trade deadline Winslow has been the Heat’s best player when it comes to plus/minus, ranking 21st in the league overall (+85). Winslow’s pairing with Wade is his sixth-best among two-man lineups for the Heat since Feb. 8, trailing his combinations with Dragic (+73), Kelly Olynyk (+62), Tyler Johnson (+56), Wayne Ellington (+48) and Rodney McGruder (+36).
While Winslow says Wade’s return has helped take some pressure off him when he’s on the court because defenses automatically pay attention to the 12-time All-Star and three-time champion, he feels like where Wade has really helped him personally is by helping to lift his spirits as he struggled to come back from a knee injury in January and early February.
“I think it was more of an energy, good vibes type of deal,” Winslow said of Wade’s contribution to him prior to Monday’s game. “The whole city, the first game he was back, the building was electric. I think I scored like two points that game [versus Milwaukee]. But I think for me it was just about going home [during the All-Star break], seeing all my friends and family back home and just feeling the love and helping put life in perspective. There was just a lot of good energy there. And then coming back [here] with Dwyane, everywhere around the city people have been excited to have him back. So, it was just a lot of positivity. I don’t think it’s necessarily Dwyane teaching me something here or there or showing me stuff. I think it’s more of the positive energy with him coming back.”
Whatever it was that helped get Winslow going, the Heat want to see more of it — and Winslow himself does too. In addition to his improvement on offense, he’s also picked things up on the defensive end, holding the opponents he guards to 44.1 percent shooting — roughly two percent lower than their average (45.9 percent) during this stretch. Prior to the deadline, opponents were shooting 45.5 percent when Winslow was guarding them.
Offensively, Winslow, who has shot well from three-point range all season, but struggled mightily scoring in the paint (25.5%) prior to the trade deadline, has made improvements when attacking the rim. Since Feb. 8, he’s converting in the paint at 35.3 percent.
“Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in,” Winslow said. “I’ve been staying with it, just continuing with the drills, continuing to find that touch around the basket and just using my eyes more to finish around the basket. I’m never satisfied, though. I still feel like I can be playing better. It feels great to see the work I put in starting to payoff. Staying with it, believing in myself, eventually the ball has started to turn in my favor. But I want more.”
▪ The Heat on Tuesday listed Wade (mild left hamstring strain) and center Hassan Whiteside (strained left hip flexor) as out for Wednesday’s game against the Kings.