Josh Richardson finally felt like himself again in the fourth quarter Thursday night.
For the first time since he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee back on Sept. 9, not only was he no longer thinking about his knee, but he was pulling up and drilling big three-point shots late in the game — much like the rookie who came on strong the second half of last season.
“We definitely have missed him,” said Tyler Johnson, who along with Richardson and Justise Winslow played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter in Thursday’s 98-95 loss to the Bulls.
“As he gets more and more confidence coming off the bench just getting into a rhythm, that’s just another weapon we have.”
Richardson’s days coming off the bench could be numbered, though.
With Goran Dragic doubtful to play Saturday night against the visiting Utah Jazz because of a sprained left ankle, Richardson seems the most likely candidate to replace the Heat’s starting point guard in the lineup — especially since Johnson, who is averaging 14.5 points off the bench, has been so effective as the Heat’s sixth man.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, still holding out “remote hope” for a Dragic return (even though his point guard left the Heat’s training facility Friday wearing a protective boot), wasn’t ready to make that declaration yet on Friday.
But Spoelstra acknowledged it’s a good thing Richardson, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter Thursday, finally appears to be rounding back into form.
“He's really competitive,” Spoelstra said of Richardson. “He gives us that two-way player that can guard multiple positions. You feel his intensity out there. And, yes, people notice [he’s returning to form] because he’s knocking down threes, but we notice all the other things he does well.
“His voice is important with this team. He does a real good job of organizing the group whether he’s playing on the ball or off the ball. Because he’s a heady player, he sees the game through a good lens.”
Richardson played plenty of point guard last season in a reserve role, and as a starter his final year of college at Tennessee. Even if he starts in Dragic’s place Saturday, the primary ball handling duties will not be his alone. Winslow, Johnson and Dion Waiters will all share in the responsibility.
Spoelstra also said he’s not exactly ready to ramp up Richardson’s minutes just yet. Richardson played 28 minutes Thursday. Spoelstra said Friday that’s ideal for Richardson right now, adding, “I don't want to all of a sudden bump him up to 40.”
Richardson, who played 16 minutes in the second half Thursday, said after the game his knee felt fine. He also said he feels comfortable running the Heat’s offense.
“I feel like I can get it where it needs to go,” Richardson said. “We have plays that are simple. So it’s not like I have to thread the needle on a lot of passes. So if I need to [be the primary ball handler] it’s fine.”
Johnson, happy with his sixth man role, said continuing to come off the bench “would be ideal.” But he’s willing to do “whatever the team needs.”
“If the team calls for me to start, if that’s what Spo needs from me, that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson said. “It’s whatever we can do to try and get ourselves back on track and get a win.”
Even though the Heat continues to go through long stretches in which the offense struggles to score, Spoelstra said he feels like the team is “taking positive steps forward” in crunch time.
“I know it's easy to get overwhelmed with the result right now and ultimately your record is what it says you are,” he said. “But we see a difference behind the scenes. In particular, our fourth-quarter execution [Thursday] was dramatically improved from say the Charlotte game. It was much more coherent, much more organized. We got good clean looks.
“Sometimes the cliché is true — it’s make or miss. But we were getting some good opportunities, and for this group each team is built differently. Sometimes teams are built where you have go-to guys to give them the ball and get out of the way. This group will have to do some of it collectively as we learn more about what our strengths are and where the ball needs to go and how we need to execute. But I saw improvement. And we just have to continue to build.
“[Thursday] was a very competitive game. Nineteen lead changes, 14 ties. I think it's important for our team to go through games like this. And we'll find a breakthrough.”
Saturday: Jazz (5-4) at Heat (2-5)
When/where: 8 p.m. AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Jazz leads 34-24.
Scouting report: The Heat, losers of three straight, will get an opponent on the second night of a back-to-back for the fourth time this season. Gordon Hayward went into Friday’s game in Orlando averaging 25.7 points per game since his return from injury.