The Miami Heat was once again shorthanded Saturday night.
Guard Wayne Ellington still hasn’t been able to get over the bruised right thigh he has had since the preseason, and forward Justise Winslow missed his seventh consecutive game with a sore left wrist.
Center Willie Reed made progress with his hyperextended right knee, going through pregame warmups for the first time since being injured but still missed his fourth game in a row. And point guard Goran Dragic missed his second consecutive game with a strained left elbow.
As much as coach Erik Spoelstra would love to have them all back, there is at least what he calls “an ancillary benefit” to what the Heat is going through early in the season with bumps and bruises.
Rookies such as Rodney McGruder, who normally wouldn’t be playing heavy fourth-quarter minutes if Dragic and Winslow were healthy, are being pressed into duty and that experience could prove valuable later in the season if the Heat can turn things around and become a playoff contender.
“What you want them to understand right from the get-go is you always have to stay ready,” Spoelstra said. “Then when you’re called upon you’re expected to be able to contribute and I think it’s a valuable lesson for guys like Rodney, who stepped up [in Memphis and Detroit]. I think the minutes [Udonis Haslem] played in Memphis were so critical to us winning.
“Guys take notice of that. Players are smart in that locker room. I think the more important lesson is you don’t make excuses. You build toughness through the grueling schedule of an 82-game season. Things happen. Injuries happen. Adversity happens. You go on the road. You don’t make excuses and you find a way to develop some grit. We’ve developed some of that already that this year even in some of the losses. We just have to keep plugging away until we get to a breakthrough that we’re looking for.”
McGruder, who averaged 18.1 minutes over his first 12 games, played 31 minutes in the Heat’s loss at Detroit on Wednesday and 32 minutes in its win Friday in Memphis. He had played more than 24 only one other time prior to that — a season-high 37 minutes in the loss to Atlanta.
McGruder, who played 20 of a possible 24 minutes in the fourth quarters in Wednesday’s and Friday’s games combined, said he enjoyed being on the floor to close out both of those games. That’s something he hadn’t done over his first 12 NBA games.
“It helps out a lot,” McGruder said of the late-game experience from early in the season. “It just puts you in those situations earlier than you ever would have expected. I’m in a great situation with great teammates, a great coaching staff that believes in all of us. It makes it that much easier to go out there and play.
“For me, I just try to stay the course, and the minutes I do have — whatever they are — I treat them like crunch-time minutes. Because whenever you get out there those are important minutes.”
So what lesson did longtime Heat assistant David Fizdale take with him to Memphis from his days serving under Spoelstra?
“Work ethic,” Fizdale said about an hour before receiving a warm welcome from the Heat crowd during a pregame introduction.
“I mean, I would put him against anybody in the league from the standpoint of preparation, time spent on watching film, really time spent on deep thought on what motivates his team, what guys to play.
“He’s a forward-thinking guy, really open minded, forward-thinking guy. I really enjoyed working with him because of that. It allowed me to be a better coach. I don’t know if there’s another coach in the league — maybe Stan [Van Gundy] because he worked for Stan — that goes that hard at it. There’s even times when I have to tell him to back off a little bit. Now my assistants are telling me the same thing. But he really instilled that in me even from when we working in the video room together — we really grinded in there. I’m forever grateful for those lessons.”