The plan was to play Wayne Ellington only about 15 minutes in Monday’s loss to the Boston Celtics, a way to ease the 29-year-old guard back into the rotation after missing the first 16 games of the season with a badly bruised right thigh.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, though, couldn’t help himself. Too many good things were happening on the offensive end in the second half with Ellington on the court to help space the floor, something the scoring-starved Heat has been searching for.
“Even if he wasn’t making shots, you can see it — he adds to our menu offensively and it gives a little bit more diversity,” Spoelstra said of Ellington, a career 37.6 percent three-point shooter who got Celtics coach Brad Stevens to stand and yell at his players to get out and guard him during the Heat’s season-high 42-point third quarter Monday.
“Guys will get much better playing off of him,” Spoelstra continued. “I think it helps our five-man basketball offensively to be able to create some triggers and actions either for himself or for the team.”
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On Monday night, center Hassan Whiteside and point guard Goran Dragic had their best game of the season together, flourishing in the pick-and-roll game. Dragic finished with season-highs in points (27) and assists (17) and Whiteside posted a 25-point, 17-rebound night.
Dragic, who had assisted Whiteside a total of only 12 times in their previous 11 games together this season, assisted Whiteside on nine of his 10 field goals Monday including three alley-oop lobs for dunks.
Part of it could have just been the Celtics defense. But the Spoelstra, Whiteside and Dragic credited Ellington’s presence, too.
Even though he was only 1-of-5 on three-pointers and finished with nine points on 4-of-9 shooting overall in 27 minutes, Ellington clearly commanded enough respect from the Celtics on the perimeter to help create some spacing for Dragic and Whiteside to thrive.
“I’ve missed it a lot,” Whiteside said of the lob game he thrived in his first two years with the Heat when Dwyane Wade was his teammate. “I told Goran, ‘Don’t expect every team to just automatically take that away. Let’s see if they can jump up there with me.’
“When we put a shooter in that corner they’ve got to choose [whether to guard me or the shooter]. [Ellington is] a shooter that moves, man. I expect him to just keep getting better and getting back to his normal self.”
Luke Babbitt, a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter, was initially supposed to help the Heat do that as a corner three-point option.
But he’s struggled from beyond the arc (30.8 percent, 16 of 52) overall and opponents have been packing the paint against the Heat instead. Babbitt is 3 of 14 on corner three-point shots (21.4 percent).
Ellington presents a new option and hope for the Heat, which ranks 19th in the league corner three-point shooting percentage (37.1 percent), but ranks third behind only the Cavaliers and Thunder with 140 corner three-point attempts.
“I feel like with Wayne coming back, he’s going to give us a different dimension on the court with his ability to shoot the ball from pin downs and catch and shoot,” Dragic said. “We just need to stick with our process and try to get better.”
The Heat, the fourth-worst shooting team in the league (42.5 percent), is tied for 25th in the league in three-point shooting at 32.9 percent overall, but ranks 12th in three-point attempts (25.6 per game). Monday, Miami missed its first 14 three-point shots and finished 6 of 30 from beyond the arc for the game.
Ellington said he knows he can help “in that area.”
“That’s where I got to pick it up,” he said. “I look forward to going out there and making some shots for us.”
With Dion Waiters (groin) and Justise Winslow (wrist) not traveling with the Heat to Denver for Miami’s three-game trip, there will be plenty of opportunities for Ellington get some valuable minutes in the Heat’s rotation and for him to work with Dragic and Whiteside in the pick-and-roll attack.
“Teams got to take away something,” Ellington said. “So if they take away the lob to H, I’ll be open in the corner. If they take Hassan and myself away, Goran is going to be able to get to the basket and do what he does. When you play like that, guys got to respect the outside ability and guys got to respect that lob. It’s tough to guard.”
Wednesday: Heat at Nuggets
When/where: 9 p.m.; Pepsi Center, Denver.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat lead 31-27
Scouting report: The Heat is 4-1 when it holds opponents under 40 percent shooting, and the Nuggets are 0-7 when they shoot less than 43 percent from the field. Nuggets rookie Jamal Murray has scored at least 20 points in three consecutive games and is red-hot beyond the arc, shooting 53.8 percent from three-point range (21 of 38) over his past seven games.