It’s been a frustrating string of days for the Miami Heat, and Dion Waiters admits it’s been no different for him.
But Waiters says his frustrations have nothing to do with his troublesome left ankle or even the fact he didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to the Boston Celtics. Waiters, 25, wants to get back to winning, playing Heat defense and playing with a free mind.
“Just having that freedom just to play and not thinking – that’s big for me right now,” Miami’s starting shooting guard said Monday afternoon as the Heat (2-3) was preparing to host the Minnesota Timberwolves (3-3) at AmericanAirlines Arena. “I’m trying to figure it out. We’ve got different lineups, different guys and you’ve got to make adjustments. I can’t be out there just thinking because it’s not good for me, it’s not good for the team. If I’m out there and I’m able to just play, like have fun and enjoy it, that’s when I’m at my best.
“But right now, it’s only five games in. We’re just figuring it out. Like I said, I’m not really worrying about the offense at the end of the day. That’s a given. It’s just defense. It’s on that defensive end. We were top five last year. I’m just trying to get back to that. The offense is going to come back around.
“We’ve got great players and guys who can create and do a lot of different things on the offensive end. It’s really defense is the main focus for me – getting them stops. I feel like we’re taking the ball out of the net too much. If we get stops, when we’re running we do what we do, and the game opens up and it becomes easier for everybody. My biggest thing is just not playing with frustration and I let that get to me the last couple games. I’ve just got to do a better job of that.”
The problem for Waiters – whether pride allows him to fully admit it or not – is his ankle (which caused him to miss the final 13 games of last season) isn’t allowing him to be the same explosive player he wants to be for an entire game. Not only has coach Erik Spoelstra seen it, but so have his teammates.
“You can see it because he’s such an explosive player,” point guard Goran Dragic said Monday. “That first step, if you have ankle problems, that’s the worst. That first step is kind of what you hesitate [to take when your ankle hurts]. You can see that he’s not moving as well as maybe in the past. But the only thing he can do is do treatments and hopefully that thing is going to get better.”
Although Waiters’ scoring (13.2 per game) and assists number (2.8 per game) are slightly down from last season, his drives to the basket this season have actually gone up.
Waiters is averaging a team-high 15.6 drives to the basket per game and 6.2 points off. He is scoring 48.5 percent of his points in the paint. Last season, Waiters averaged 11.0 drives to the basket per game and 5.3 points off them. Last season, he scored 36.8 percent of his points in the paint.
The difference in production for Waiters is after halftime. Although there are no available statistics that break down drives to the basket per quarter or half, Waiters’ shooting percentage and scoring in the second half slip in comparison to what he does in the first half.
Through his first five games he’s shot 33.3 percent and averaged 4.4 points after halftime. Before the break, he’s shot 48.6 percent and averaged 8.8 points.
“I’ve always got that – like at the beginning of the game – I’ve always got that explosive first step,” Waiters said. “Even on one leg I’ve got that explosive first step. I’ve just got it. That ain’t really [the issue].”
But “then,” Waiters admits softly, “I’ll feel it.”
The ankle tightens up. Usually he’ll tell trainor Jay Sabol when the pain becomes unbearable. But for the most part, Waiters tries to put mind over matter.
“Dion will get his rhythm and I’ll find ways to get him more involved and get him into his strength zones, that’s my responsibility as well,” Spoelstra said Monday. “I have a lot of things that I’m checking off. That’s not at the top off the list. But it’s on the list. I think with a better overall collective rhythm of how I want to play, I think that will be taken care of on its own.”
In the end, it’s up to Spoelstra to decide whether to play Waiters when his ankle won’t allow him to have the same explosion. For his part, Waiters is going to give it all he has.
“When I’m out there I’m out there man,” Waiters said. “I don’t make no excuses for nothing. It is what it is. If I wake up one day and I can’t walk – hopefully that don’t happen but – then there’s a problem. But if I can get up there and figure different ways, figure different things out and work on it and improve it, then I’m going to do it. Because I feel as though the team needs me and it’s too early in the year for this too be going on.
“[Expletive] is going to change at the end of the day – if we keep working, stay positive. Every game is different. You get a chance to go back, watch film, see the mistakes you made, then you just communicate, you communicate with coach and get on the same path.”
Ultimately, whether he’s 100 percent or not, Waiters’ confidence makes him believe his first step will get him past his defender.
“Even if I still got pain, nobody can stay in front of me,” Waiters said. “You can’t stop me from getting to the basket on one leg. That’s just my mindset, my mentality. I don’t let that affect my play because it’s sore or it might get tight or whatever. Nah, I’m still going to attack. I’m still going to do what I do. That’s my strength. That’s our strength – getting to the basket and making plays for myself and others.”