Five takeaways from the Heat’s 107-89 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena in Hassan Whiteside’s return to the lineup :
1. The Heat has enjoyed a few nice developments while Whiteside and other key rotation players have been out. And we were reminded of them in the fourth quarter. I’m not going to say the Heat don’t need Whiteside (or the money he’s being paid spent on someone else if he’s not around) to win meaningful games and be a legitimate playoff contender. But on nights like these, against teams like the Magic or Mavericks (or even on special nights like we saw last week in Boston), the Heat has learned how to survive and win without their best players doing their thing.
Whiteside, on a minutes restriction, played just 17 minutes and 42 seconds and took a seat for good with five minutes left in the third quarter. Goran Dragic, battling a strained left elbow, missed 11 of his first 13 shots, finished 6 of 18 from the field for 14 points and sat the entire fourth quarter. James Johnson, who signed a four-year, $60 million deal this summer, and Dion Waiters, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal, were sidelined by ankle injuries. Justise Winslow, the Heat's first round pick in 2015, missed his seventh straight game with a knee injury.
And yet, there was the Heat, turning a 68-all tie heading into the fourth quarter into a laugher with Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Jordan Mickey, Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington doing all the heavy lifting. That’s Heat culture. That’s what Pat Riley loves about Erik Spoelstra. He gets guys to step up and develop into winners regardless of what role they play on most nights.
“My idea coming into it was that [Whiteside] was going to play about 20 minutes,” Spoelstra said. “I played him a little bit longer in that first quarter. It wasn’t in cement. I talked quite a bit about it with Jay [Sabol] and Hassan and Doc and we were going to get it somewhere in that ballpark, 20 to 25 minutes, somewhere in that range. I was ready to put him back there in the fourth, but the way that group was going, there’s no way I was going to take anybody out of that group.”
2. Ellington is ‘a human cheat code.’ That’s what Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac apparently called Ellington, who hit four of his six three-pointers in the fourth quarter and finished with 18 points.
“I don’t know what that means,” Ellington said. “It’s funny you said that because Hassan was just saying the same thing, he said the sliders are up. I’ve heard guys saying that before, but I don’t really play video games. So I don’t know exactly what that means. But I’m guessing it’s a good compliment. So I appreciate that.”
Ellington has made 17 three pointers over his last three games, a personal best for any three-game span in his career. He’s now made at least six three pointers in a game six times this season, second only to James Harden’s 10 games with at least six threes.
His 97 made threes are the second most in by a Heat player through the team’s first 34 games. Only Damon Jones, who set the franchise-record for threes in a season, had more (98) back in 2004-05 over the first 34 games of a season.
“With Wayne, very few guys could do that, what he does, be that ignitable,” Spoelstra said. “And the level of difficulty on his threes, coming off full speed, stop on a dime and shoot it under the heaviest of duress and pressure and contest – he makes it look easy. But those are thousands and thousands of reps doing that full speed, with imaginary defense. He creates actions for us. That’s a different venue, catch and shoots, and that’s great for our offense.”
3. Richardson is making solid nights look routine now. The Heat’s 2015 second round pick led the team with 20 points (on 8 of 14 shooting) and scored 14 of them in the fourth quarter. He also finished with seven rebounds, five assists and a steal in 36 productive minutes.
“J-Rich, I’m starting to expect this now,” Spoelstra said. “He guards the best player and scored 20 and do it efficiently. That’s what great players do.”
Said Dragic: “It’s nothing surprising to me. Even his rookie year, he already shown he can have big games and now he’s just more consistent. We need him. He’s a two-way player. Defensively, he can guard their best guy and he can score. He’s a complete player and we’re happy to have him.”
4. Tyler Johnson finished a ridiculous plus 32 in plus/minus. The Heat is 1-3 season when Tyler Johnson scores at least 20 points, vastly different than the team’s 8-3 record a year ago when he scored 20 in a game.
But it’s obvious the Heat needs Johnson to do more than just score to be successful. The Heat is now 15-3 this season when Johnson finishes in the postive in plus minus. Tuesday, he was 5 of 16 from the field, 1 of 9 from three-point range, but had four rebounds, two assists, one steal and a block and made a bunch of plays on the defensive end.
“When Tyler’s at his best version of himself, you just see a bundle of energy and toughness and winning plays,” Spoelstra said. “It doesn’t matter necessarily how many points he scored. Now, he is going through a stage right now somewhere to what J-Rich is going through. His confidence is growing every single game, and you can see it. You can see it before your eyes. You can see it happening. And, so, he’s playing poised. So he’s not necessarily forcing the action. I think he’s letting the game come to him. But it's that nice balance of being aggressive and taking what's given to you. But reading the defense and being aggressive when the defense is weak. It’s not a misprint when somebody is at plus-32. You felt him. You didn't need to look at the box score, you just felt his impact.”
Johnson stepped on a Magic players foot in the third quarter and it looked like he had hurt his ankle. He stayed in the game, however, and said he felt fine.
“It was a little bit sore, but once my adrenaline started going [I was fine],” Johnson said. “It will probably get a little bit sore tonight, but I mean I’ll be all right. There’s nothing there.”
5. Whiteside says he still isn’t 100 percent, but he says he’s not far off. What got the Heat center on Tuesday was fatigue. He hasn’t been used to running like his teammates have in a while and it’s going to take time.
“It was different. I’m definitely getting back into the swing of things,” Whiteside said. “The game’s fast. It felt like the beginning of the season for me or something. I felt like something new.”
Whiteside is still using a brace to protect his left knee. He said he felt like he was at least 90 percent. The plan though is to eventually get rid of the brace.
“Coach told me I wasn’t going to play over 20 minutes,” he said. “He wanted to work things into things. I was going to be on a minutes’ restriction. He wanted to work it up.”