Miami Heat

A clutch turn as starter by valued reserve helps Heat during injury-riddled month

Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson goes to the basket against Magic's center Bismack Biyombo in the first quarter of the Miami Heat vs Orlando Magic, NBA game at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017.
Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson goes to the basket against Magic's center Bismack Biyombo in the first quarter of the Miami Heat vs Orlando Magic, NBA game at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017. pportal@miamiherald.com

Tyler Johnson said he likes getting a good look at what he’s up against before he checks into a game.

Being a bench player grants him that opportunity, and it’s a role he thrived in last year for the Heat.

But hitting the ground running hasn’t been a problem for Johnson, either.

During a time that the Heat has really needed its “next men up” to provide depth, Johnson has delivered over the past two weeks.

Johnson was one of the NBA’s top three bench scorers last season, averaging 13.2 points, improving his assist-to-turnover ratio to a career best (3.2 assists, 1.2 turnovers).

But so far this season, his numbers have improved drastically as a starter.

After not starting a game since Jan. 22, 2016, Johnson has started the past seven for the injury-ravaged Heat averaging 17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals in 35.9 minutes per game while shooting 47 percent from the field. Johnson has also made 9 of 24 attempts from three-point range over the past five games.

“It doesn’t change a whole lot once the game gets going,” Johnson said. “Usually I take those first five or six minutes to watch what the other team is doing so now I’m the one having to go through it so when I come in the game I already have in mind what I want to do.”

Johnson scored 22 of his season-high 31 points (one short of his career-high) in the third quarter on 10 of 11 shooting to help the Heat come back from 18 down to beat the Magic on Saturday in Orlando and avoid back-to-back losses to two of the Eastern Conference’s worst teams.

Even after landing face first on the court, Johnson shook off the fall and five game minutes later, grabbed the decisive defensive rebound. He subsequently converted a pair of game-sealing free throws.

“I think he got a little bit of easy stuff at the start, a couple of things in transition, open threes which gives a guy like him confidence and now he’s really tough to guard,” Kelly Olynyk said. “He’s coming off screens full speed and hitting shots. He’s got all that confidence for his floaters, pull-ups and then you kick it to him he’s open he’s knocking it down. If you get him going, he’s a hard person to stop.”

Because of his slow offensive start in November, Johnson is averaging 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for the whole season so far while shooting 42.2 percent (145 of 344) so far this season, which is near his career-low (41.9 percent).

But in December, Johnson is averaging 15.9 points on 50.3 percent shooting and gone 29 of 67 from three-point range (43.3 percent) to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

For perspective, Johnson’s month has been clutch coming at the same time as Josh Richardson also delivered a great December in which he averaged 17.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 46.8 from three-point range.

So if Johnson continues to produce at this rate, whether as a starter or off the bench the rest of this season, does he remain a part of the Heat’s long-term plans?

Johnson earned $5.8 million last season and is making the same amount this season. But next year because of his backloaded contract the Heat, which would be out of salary cap room next season if it kept its current roster intact, would have to pay Johnson $19.2 million each of next two seasons.

Johnson said he likes his role coming off the bench but doesn’t really have a preference as opposed to starting, although he may continue to do so as long as Dion Waiters remains sidelined and James Johnson and Justise Winslow are also out.

“Sometimes it’s good to shock your mind and shock your body like that out of the lull of any routine,” Johnson said. “I’ll do it as long as the team needs me. I don’t have any ego about wanting to [start] long-term. If the team needs me to be in that first unit long-term, then I’ll be in it long-term. If guys start getting healthy, I’ll go back to doing what I was doing.”

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