Miami Heat

Despite injuries, defending champion Warriors will be tough against Heat. Here is why.

Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson (0) grabs a rebound against Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Detroit. The Pistons defeated the Heat 112-103.
Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson (0) grabs a rebound against Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Detroit. The Pistons defeated the Heat 112-103. AP

The ring finger on Steph Curry’s shooting hand is bothering him. Kevin Durant’s anger prompted his ejection. And yet, so strong are the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors that they can brush aside such matters involving their two stars and still manhandle opponents, as they did Friday to the Magic.

“They’re definitely one of the best teams of all time,” said the Heat’s Josh Richardson. “They play with their personnel very well and have all stars across the board and are all into their team. It’s very rare to find a team that plays like that.”

The Heat will have its work cut out Sunday when the Warriors pay their one and only visit of the season to Miami.

Golden State (17-6) is showing no signs of a post-title letdown, leading the NBA in scoring at 118 points per game, a slight improvement over their 2016-17 average of 115.9.

“They can score in bunches,” the Heat’s Goran Dragic said. “They can shoot. They can put the ball on the floor.”

In Curry and Durant, they have two of the league’s top 10 scorers, and the team’s unselfish play was underscored Friday when they dished out 46 assists on 55 field goals in their win over Orlando.

“It’s always good to play a team like that,” the Heat’s Dion Waiters said. “You have to be locked in and focused because you know it can get ugly early.”

The Heat held the Warriors to 97 points on 36 percent shooting when they faced them on the road in early November. But they still lost by 17.

“It’s always fun to be able to play the champs and go up against the best to measure yourself,” Richardson said. “They play very well together. Have a great system put in.”

The Heat managed to defeat the Warriors in their lone visit to Miami last season. But that win came at a time when the Heat was changing direction after a poor start. The Golden State victory came early in a 13-game winning streak.

This Heat team has yet to find that same groove.

They’ve shown a recent tendency to fall behind early as they did in road losses to the Cavaliers and Knicks, and trailed Charlotte 16-1 on Friday before recovering for a 105-100 win over the Hornets.

“We have to get off to a better start than we’ve been doing so we don’t have to battle back as much,” Waiters said.

Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters talks about his big shot in last season’s Heat win over the Warriors and the challenges they present.

As for Curry, he’s dealing with a sore finger, yet still managed to score 23 points on 9 for 20 shooting against the Magic.

“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Curry said. “It’s something I’ll have to play through. It hurts any time you use it but more than that, you have a certain feel for the basketball without anything on your hand and you have a wrap and tape and different kind of functional pattern. It just takes time to get used to.”

Top defense

This was the 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.

Herald sportswriter Andre Fernandez contributed to this report.

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