For a team that often has treated draft picks as thoroughly expendable commodities in recent years, there’s something sweetly ironic to watch the Heat getting more from its rookie draft class than perhaps any other playoff-caliber team in the league.
There was a lot more of that Monday against Denver, with Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson adding to their impressive rookie résumé in a 124-119 win.
Winslow scored a career-high 20, while Richardson (17 points) continued his torrid three-point shooting and ignited a critical late third-quarter rally.
“It’s awesome to see those young guys contributing so much to this team,” Goran Dragic said. “They’re unbelievable.”
The Heat’s defense was far too loose, and Denver’s 30 fastbreak points were the most by a Heat opponent this season, as were Denver’s 68 paint points. What’s more, Miami was beaten on the boards 40-33 after out-rebounding 13 consecutive opponents, the longest streak in franchise history.
But Miami nevertheless survived, shooting 59.5 percent from the field and executing efficiently down the stretch.
Richardson, who began getting regular minutes only after injuries to Tyler Johnson and Beno Udrih, hit 4 for 5 threes, making him a ridiculous 22 for 35 on three-pointers since the All-Star break.
Richardson said his shot “was not too pretty” at the start of the season but he improved by attempting at least 200 every day. “So many shots have all added up,” he said, crediting assistant coach Chris Quinn for making an adjustment with his feet on his jump shot.
With the Heat down 89-82 late in the third, Richardson hit a three, and a bit later stole a pass, was fouled and hit one of two free throws to draw the Heat to within 91-90 after three.
Then Richardson thwarted a Denver rally when he drove the baseline and threw down a violent one-handed dunk to put the Heat ahead 105-101 midway through the fourth. He also had two big blocked shots in the fourth.
Winslow, meantime, scored 15 points in the first half, then put the Heat ahead for good in with 8:57 left when he made a steal, was fouled and hit a layup and the ensuing free throw.
Winslow continues to improve his mid-range shooting, closing 8 for 13 overall from the floor. His previous rookie high point total was 15, last month against Indiana.
“They’re fearless,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Winslow and Richardson. “They’re great workers, which is unique for young players. They’re in here all the time, first here, last to leave.”
The sterling work from the rookies complemented a 17-point, eight-rebound night from Luol Deng and a 19-point game from Dwyane Wade. Joe Johnson (18 points) had another good night and delivered two terrific alley-oops to Hassan Whiteside in the final two minutes.
Whiteside, offering much less deterrence at the rim than is usually the case, overcame a shaky first three quarters to score 12 of his 18 points in the fourth.
Whiteside had produced double figures in rebounds for 12 consecutive games, and that streak extended to 13 when he corralled his 10th and final rebound with just over a minute left. That’s the longest double-figure rebounding streak off the bench in the NBA since Paul Silas did it 13 games in a row in 1975.
“His last six minutes of the game were his best,” Spoelstra said. “His first six minutes were the worst.”
Despite the Nuggets’ poor record (28-39), Denver entered 5-1 in its last six games and averaging 116 points during that stretch. Denver forward Kenneth Faried shot 11 for 11 on a 24-point night but played just three minutes in the fourth.
“Defensively, we have [had] so many breakdowns,” Johnson said. “We’ll figure it out.”
With the win, the Heat moved within a half game of No. 3 Boston and one game ahead of No. 5 Atlanta.
BOSH ON BENCH
For the first time since being diagnosed with a blood clot, Chris Bosh sat on the Heat bench during the game. Bosh, on the team’s inactive list Monday, had attended previous games but in a less visible part of the arena.
Bosh, who said last week that he no longer has the clot, has been working out “almost daily” with the coaching and training staff and doing work in the weight room, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. But even though Bosh has said he’s optimistic about being able to play this season, the Heat has declined to discuss the likelihood of that.