Five takeaways from the Heat’s 105-100 win against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena:
• This was the Josh Richardson that Heat president Pat Riley assuredly hoped for when he hosted Richardson’s agents on an August night at his Malibu home and told them he wanted to offer the young guard the maximum-permitted four-year, $42 million contract.
Riley and the Heat knew Richardson could defend. And they knew he could shoot, based on excellent work in the second half of his rookie year, when he led the NBA in three-point shooting.
The question was whether he could sustain the shooting, stay healthy and become a clearly above average NBA wing player.
Friday was a good step, with Richardson’s 27 points topping his previous career high by five. He shot 11 of 14 and 3 for 4 on threes and scored 11 in the third quarter on 5 for 5 shooting.
Even beyond the jump shot, Richardson showed explosiveness to the basket, driving for two dunks. And he showed emotion, energizing his team along the way, and noting afterward that he "plays better" when he’s extremely aggressive.
"This was the player who looked like this coming out of training camp, but you do have to credit J-Rich for his character and competitiveness," Erik Spoelstra said. "Even while he’s been struggling from the field, he’s been an all-NBA defender. He hasn’t let that affect the effort he brings to each game. It was great to see him play with that kind of passion. His enthusiasm was infectious to the rest of the guys. Everything he did was inspirational to the rest of the guys."
As of midweek, Richardson’s shooting percentage – in the mid 30s much of the year – was the lowest for an NBA starting small forward. But he has been holding the player he’s guarding to under 35 percent shooting – best (from a defensive standpoint) – among NBA starting small forwards.
After missing 23 of 25 three-pointer during a recent stretch, Richardson has followed that by hitting 9 of 18 threes over his last three games.
Richardson said he has been "working a little more on my shot. It’s been falling in practice so the coaches said it was a matter of time" before it started falling his games.
• Center Bam Adebayo’s point and rebound numbers (one and five) were modest, but the rookie’s impact was far more significant as he started a second consecutive game in the absence of Hassan Whiteside.
He also had four steals and two blocks in 18 minutes and played excellent defense on Dwight Howard, who gave him a hug after the game.
Adebayo drew two offensive fouls from Howard, who went to the bench with five fouls midway through the third.
And Adebayo made it difficult for Howard offensively throughout. On two early Charlotte possessions, Adebayo had a steal and then defended Howard so tightly that a pass to him sailed out of bounds.
Early in the third quarter, Adebayo forced Howard out of bounds on a drive on the baseline.
"That is the protypical old school box score that doesn’t at all indicate his impact," Spoelstra said of Adebayo. "He made so many winning plays on both ends of the court. Very steady, very disciplined to the game plan. He was able to defend with technique. To be able to do it without fouling. Always in the right spot defensively."
Adebayo missed his only three shots from the field – after shooting 11 for 12 over his previous two games – but it hardly mattered because of his impact on the other end of the floor.
"Offensively, he did a lot of things to get our guards open," Spoelstra said. "They should buy him and Kelly [Olynyk] dinner."
Said Adebayo: “Even though I didn’t score, I was doing it all on the defensive side. I told my teammates, ‘You do all the scoring and I’ll just focus on defense this game.’ Just matching everybody’s physicality is big to me.”
Howard embraced Adebayo after the game and the two chatted for a minute or so. Howard told Adebayo that they look alike, something Adebayo has heard for years.
"I’m like his little brother," said Adebayo said. "People think we look alike. I don’t see it."
• This starting lineup eventually might need an offensive infusion with Whiteside out indefinitely with a bone bruise on his left knee. But after this win, Spoelstra likely will stick with this group at least in the immediate future.
Spoelstra started Adebayo, Richardson and Justise Winslow up front, with Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters at guard. With the starting guards opening a combined 0 for 8, that unit fell behind 16-1 before Spoelstra made a change.
That five-man unit was better to start the second half, with Charlotte outscoring Miami 17-16 to open the third quarter before Dragic went to the bench.
If a change is made, the option would be starting James Johnson or Olynyk ahead of Winslow. For now, Spoelstra figures to stick with this starting group.
• Since February, Waiters and Dragic have been excellent in the clutch, and that continued even on a night when both struggled with efficiency.
Dragic, a model of consistency for most of the season, had this third consecutive poor shooting game, finishing 3 for 12 on a seven-point night. But he also hit a 14-foot step back jumper with 2:23 left that put Miami ahead for good and ignited a 9-0 run.
Dragic had shot 1 for 5 and 3 for 12 the previous two nights. So this was Dragic’s second consecutive 3 for 12 shooting game.
Waiters, who has been among the league leaders in clutch shooting percentage, hit a three to push the Heat’s lead to six with 1:09 left.
"Fourth quarter comes around, you know what time it is," Waiters said, noting that his shooting percentage is down (he entered at 39.9) because he has been fading too much on his jumper.
• Wayne Ellington’s offense off the bench remains an invaluable component, inexorably linked to team success. Miami is now 6-1 when Ellington makes at least four threes in a game.
He hit four of them in the first half Friday, helping Miami climb out of that early 15-point hole. He finished with 14 points on 5 for 9 shooting and 4 for 7 on threes.
In fact, the entire bench was very good, with Tyler Johnson – who has struggled with his shot all season - hitting 5 of 7 on a 12- point night, James Johnson contributing three huge late baskets and Olynyk chipped in 10 points, four rebounds, six assists and (as usual) some excellent screens.
"They came in with incredible enthusiasm," Spoelstra said of his reserves on a night the Heat improved its record to 11-11, with the defending champion Warriors visiting AmericanAirlines Arena on Sunday evening.
"This time the bench couldn’t wait to get into the game. They were foaming at the mouth to get in there. That enthusiasm really became contagious. They were really moving the ball. The first half was the best we moved the ball in a while."