Five takeaways from the Heat’s 112-108 victory over the Indiana Pacers Saturday night in Miami’s home opener:
1. James Johnson’s first quarter dunk was a thing of beauty. In two weeks when the Heat is on the West Coast playing the likes of the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Suns and Jazz we will have forgotten all the things that went right and wrong for Miami against a bad, rebuilding Pacers team, which was playing on the second night of a back-to-back without center Myles Turner. One thing we won’t forget is JJ’s bring-the-funk dunk over Victor Oladipo in the first quarter. Johnson, 30, had his share of big slams his first season with the Heat, but this one was special and is sure to be replayed all season. ESPN immediately tweeted out the highlight of the dunk as a SportsCenter Top 10 nominee.
Ultimately, Johnson’s biggest contribution Saturday was that he was on the floor for extended minutes to help the team win. Even in 19-foul plagued minutes Wednesday, his value was clear in the loss to the Magic. Miami nearly erased a 97-80 fourth quarter deficit in Orlando because Johnson was running the offense and creating easy buckets for teammates. He dished out six of his game-high eight assists in that fourth period and finished with 11 points.
Saturday, Johnson played 30 minutes and had 14 points, four rebounds, eight assists and five blocks. That’s usually a winning formula for the Heat. Last year, Miami was 32-23 when Johnson played 25 minutes or more. The Heat was also 20-8 when Johnson had five or more assists.
2. The Heat did a better job defensively than it did opening night – even with Hassan Whiteside out with a bone bruise and wearing a suit on the bench. Coach Erik Spoelstra was steaming mad over the Heat’s defensive effort against the Magic Wednesday when Orlando scored 56 points in the paint and did it with relative ease (28 of 52 shooting, 53.8 percent).
Saturday’s final numbers don’t necessarily show huge improvement, but the Pacers, who scored 56 points in the paint, had a rougher go of it than Orlando did. Indiana was 11 of 29 in the paint in the first half and 28 of 60 for the game in the paint (46.7 blocks).
Miami had 11 blocks Saturday compared to four on Wednesday.
“It was better for about two quarters,” Spoelstra said of the Heat’s interior defense. “And then we still were giving up too many easy ones. We just have to be more disciplined and more consistent to how we want to defend and then evaluate from there. But at least there were more possessions that were done right.”
3. Justise Winslow continues to look like a new man in flashes. Coming off season-ending shoulder surgery it was fair to expect Winslow to struggle early on, especially in light of the fact he shot 36.4 percent in the preseason (12-of-33). He isn’t burning down nets in his first two regular season games (he did airball a three in the fourth quarter Saturday and missed his last five shots), but the slimmer, sleeker new model of Winslow (he dropped about 15 pounds this summer) is finding ways to help the Heat win.
After scoring 10 points in the opener (4-of-8 shooting), he showed off a pretty turnaround jumper in the first half Saturday and hit his first three buckets on the night. He also was plus 16 on the floor in the first half, the best of any Heat player, when Miami turned a 31-26 first quarter deficit into a 63-50 halftime lead.
Winslow finished with six points (3-of-8 shooting), six rebounds, a block and a steal versus the Pacers. He also finished the game plus-2.
“In the first half in particular, that’s where you saw the diversity and versatility of his game on both ends of the court,” Spoelstra said. “He was defending, making multiple effort plays. Offensively, I think he was being aggressive, but making the right play. Then, in the second half he got away from that a little bit offensively. But you’re certainly starting to see more of the guy that we anticipated.”
4. Kelly Olynyk’s return to the bench might be a thing Spoelstra considers doing more of going forward. Spoelstra has said over and over again he’s not married to sticking with one starting lineup with this team and the fact Olynyk didn’t start at center with Whiteside out was a little eye-opening Saturday. Miami’s starting lineup Wednesday was minus-8 together, the worst of any five-man lineup.
Saturday, Olynyk provided a huge lift off the bench when he replaced Jordan Mickey, the spot starter, at center. The Pacers led 39-37 with 7:25 to play when Olynyk keyed a 13-0 Miami run. First, he hit a three to put Miami ahead. Then, after drawing a pair of charges on the Pacers, he turned a steal into another three moments later. Olynyk had 10 points, three rebounds and three assists by the break.
Mickey had eight points, six rebounds and finished a team-best plus six in 14 minutes of action. Olynyk finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 27 minutes.
“With Hassan out I just didn't feel like we could mess around,” Spoelstra said of his decision to start Johnson at power forward, Mickey at center and bring Olynyk off the bench. “JJ needs to get out there and be out on the floor as many minutes as possible. I didn’t want to risk having him come off the bench. Since we’re bringing JJ into that starting lineup, I wanted to have somebody to allow KO to play more with that second unit. I thought he was really comfortable there playing in that second unit. I think that was probably his best game on both ends since he’s been with us. So, Jordan has been doing enough to impress us. They were short minutes just to get the game going. But those are always important minutes.”
5. Miami’s version of 7-Eleven – Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters – had nice bounce back performances from a rough opening night. After combining for 32 points on 13-of-36 shooting in Orlando, Waiters and Dragic were much sharper Saturday against the Pacers.
Dragic finished 9-of-13 for 23 points and three assists. Waiters was 8-of-16 for 19 points with two assists, two steals and a block an showed no issues with his left ankle, which he tweaked against the Magic. Dragic and Waiters each had big buckets down the stretch to help the Heat hold on for the victory after Indiana nearly erased a 21-point second half deficit.
“We just got to do a better job,” Waiters said of holding onto big leads. “Last year around this time, we probably would have lost it.”
It might seem like ancient history, but if you remember the Heat did squander a huge lead in last year’s home opener in a loss to Charlotte. Saturday, Waiters and Dragic made sure history didn’t repeat itself.
“In Orlando, of course I was disappointed that we lost, and I was disappointed with my game,” Dragic said. “But all the shots I missed were easy shots, layups, a lot of shots I usually make. But it is what it is and I cannot look back and try to get back. Tonight was totally different.”