Rashard Lewis’ first dunk of the preseason happened a week before the team left for the Bahamas and sent Heat assistant coach David Fizdale running around the team’s practice court screaming like a madman.
Playing from the top of the elbow in a pick-up game, Lewis first dribbled and spun through power forward Justin Hamilton, sending Hamilton flying backwards. Then, with a few fluid strides, Lewis bounded to the basket and threw down a one-handed dunk that sent Fizdale into motion and stopped the game.
“It has been a while since I dunked the ball the way I dunked it that day,” Lewis said.
How long? Try about two years due to chronic arthritis in his knees.
After celebrating Lewis’ dunk, Fizdale then joked that it was time to shut down the gym for the day. He had seen enough, apparently.
Take one look at Lewis these days and it’s clear he’s feeling healthier, moving better and playing with more confidence than he has in quite some time. Now the task as the Heat begins the preseason is maintaining his range of motion and, in particular, keeping his knees happy.
After using its amnesty clause on Mike Miller this offseason to shave millions off the team’s books, the Heat is hoping Lewis can step in and contribute minutes when called upon. He will be battling James Jones, Roger Mason Jr. and others for playing time, but that Lewis is even in the fight at this point is a positive sign.
“We’ll see how it plays out, but our guys all understand that at some point they’re all going to get an opportunity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It has happened consistently over the last three years, and they’re pros enough to understand that there’s a sacrifice involved, but there is opportunity also available right now.”
So far, Lewis has made a case for a closer look. In the Heat’s first preseason game Monday, Lewis fought through contact on a driving layup to initiate a three-point play. He finished with 11 points against the Hawks in 19 minutes, going 2 of 3 from the three-point line. One night earlier, Lewis had 10 points, including a pair of three-pointers, and seven rebounds in the Heat’s intrasquad scrimmage.
While Spoelstra hasn’t publicly put any pressure on Lewis to break into the rotation, LeBron James was a little more direct on Tuesday.
“He has to — he has to play more,” James said. “He has to come in with a mind-set that I have to be a part of this with us losing Mike [Miller]. He has to step into that role.
“I think he’s excited about it. I think Spo has some confidence in him early. He’s a great player, and we’re going to need him.”
When Lewis joined the Heat last October, he wasn’t anywhere near healthy enough to contribute consistent minutes. After signing with the Heat in July of 2012, Lewis revealed to the Miami Herald on Tuesday he had OssaTron shock wave therapy on both knees that August. Doctors instructed him to take six weeks off, but also said he wouldn’t be fully recovered from the procedure for six months. Wade had the OssaTron procedure on his knee this summer.
“They told me it would be a six-month healing process over time,” Lewis said. “It’s not going to feel good overnight. It was just something I had to continue to work on with rehabbing and building my lower body up.
“I’d say around January or February of last season is when I really felt good and healthy, but at that time we were really rolling as a team and my job was to continue to support the team and continue to work on my body and get healthy.”
This offseason, Lewis worked every day in Houston on strengthening his legs.
“It wasn’t about just lifting weights but corrective exercises with rubber band work and medicine-ball squats and just a lot of different things and making sure I take that pressure off my knees, and it seems to be helping a lot,” he said.
This is Lewis’ final year of a two-year contract, and his goal right now is simply to put himself in position to contribute. James joked with Lewis recently that his dunks this preseason are like the Kansas City Chiefs, which only won two games last season but are now 5-0.
“He’s got more wins than he had all of last year,” James said. “But he looks healthy, he’s running and it has shown in his ability to shoot the ball and around the rim.”
The Heat exercised its team option on point guard Norris Cole’s contract for the 2014-15 season on Tuesday.