The Heat beat the Spurs 108-100 in a thoroughly impressive preseason performance Friday night in San Antonio, but several issues remain unresolved.
Among those issues: who starts at small forward and shooting guard, and who claims the final roster spot. There’s still time to gain clarity on each, with four preseason games remaining.
Taking one at a time:
• Starting power forward: Derrick Williams continued to make a case for the job, by virtue of the fact that the Heat seems to play well with the former No. 2 overall draft pick on the floor.
Williams entered at plus 31 for the preseason and was a plus 9 in 23 minutes against the Spurs, which was actually the worst among the starters. Besides his ability to do a lot of things decently, his athleticism and ability to play in an up-tempo game are also assets.
Williams closed with 10 points and three rebounds, but his three-point game remains hit and miss. He entered at 38.5 percent on threes, well above his 30 percent career average, but was 1 for 6 tonight. He has been working with shooting coach Rob Fodor to improve his touch.
Luke Babbitt started at power forward in the preseason opener, but sat out Friday with a groin injury. He’s clearly the best three-point shooter of the candidates for the starting job, but Williams has a more well-rounded game.
Rugged James Johnson (15 points, three boards, three assists) did terrific work off the bench and has injected himself into the conversation about the starting power forward job.
But this starting lineup works better with a power forward with range, and Johnson’s perimeter game is obviously limited. He did sink a three tonight, but he’s 97 for 365 on threes in his career (26.6 percent).
Nevertheless, Johnson has made a case to be Hassan Whiteside’s backup, a role that Udonis Haslem or Willie Reed also could handle.
• Starting shooting guard: Dion Waiters started alongside Goran Dragic for the first time in preseason, and the results were pretty good, even more so when Tyler Johnson joined them in a three-guard lineup. (Johnson initially replaced Justise Winslow as Spoelstra’s first substitution of the game.)
“All three can put the ball on the floor and they’re tough,” Spoelstra said of Waiters, Dragic and Johnson (courtesy 790 The Ticket). “All three allow us to take advantage of their speed and quickness because they don’t get buried by bigger players.”
Waiters scored 15 points (5 for 9 shooting) in 27 minutes and keeps constant pressure on the defense with his penetrations. He had four assists and just one turnover, which is key considering he entered the game with 10 turnovers in three games.
Waiters lured defenders on one drive, then dished to Tyler Johnson for an open three. Waiters also has developed decent chemistry with Hassan Whiteside on lobs.
Dragic shot 2 for 7 but had six assists and one turnover in 24 minutes.
Tyler Johnson’s development as a backup point guard remains a work in progress, but he clearly can give this team a jolt of offense and athleticism and hustle off the bench. This was Johnson at his best tonight, with 14 first half points, a follow-up dunk in transition and a blocked shot on the perimeter.
Johnson closed with 17 points, including 4 for 4 on threes, with five assists, and ended the third quarter by sinking a three launched midway between the three-point arc and halfcourt line.
“He’s taken a step forward with his control, with his leadership, and that has really helped him in his play,” Spoelstra said. “He makes a lot of plays to help you win.”
After the game, Johnson told Fox Sports Sun’s Jason Jackson that he’s comfortable coming off the bench and thus felt more in a routine the past two games.
Josh Richardson (when he gets back from his knee injury) and Waiters appear the best options at starting shooting guard.
Wayne Ellington, also an option at shooting guard, went back to the bench after starting on Tuesday and shot just 2 for 12 against the Spurs.
• Final roster spot: It’s actually the 14th roster spot at stake, because the 15th must go to Chris Bosh before he’s released in February or beyond. And the battle appears to come down to Beno Udrih and Briante Weber.
The Heat knows what it’s getting with Udrih: a steady floor leader who won’t make foolish mistakes and can hit a three.
His leadership, maturity and steadiness are valued by the staff, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is always solid (career averages are 3.4 assists, 1.4 turnovers).
“He's a veteran, experienced point guard," Spoelstra said. "So when you're dealing with new players and some young players, that is an important skill set to bring to the table. He can get your team organized. He doesn't feel pressure. And he tends to make the right plays at the right place at the right time, and get the ball where it needs to go. He's the kind of guy, he's played 13 years and the pace that he plays, he can be out two weeks, all of a sudden throw him in there and it's not like he's lost a step."
Udrih should be applauded for his selflessness in relinquishing $90,000 of his salary last February, a move that kept the Heat below the luxury tax threshold.
Udrih, 34, rose from Sempeter, Slovenia, a village of 2500 people, to defy the odds and play 12 years (going on 13) in the NBA. So he should never be overlooked. He will be paid the $1.5 million minimum whether he’s on the team or not.
Weber, 23, offers potential that intrigues the coaching staff, and he’s a defensive dynamo (four more steals tonight) but isn’t as polished as Udrih.
For the preseason, Weber entered shooting 33 percent (he didn’t take a shot in 12 minutes tonight) and now has seven assists and five turnovers in preseason.
• Couple other notes from tonight: Justise Winslow had a nice night (15 points, 5 rebounds, a block and 2 for 3 on threes)… Whiteside just missed a double-double, with 12 points, 9 rebounds and a block in 22 minutes…
The Heat plays Minnesota on Saturday in Louisville. There’s no TV for that game, but every other Heat game through the end of the season will be televised....
One NBA media note tonight: Chris Broussard is leaving ESPN for a job at Fox Sports 1.
Please click here for my column on the Dolphins’ options if they try to upgrade over Ryan Tannehill.