With the return of Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo from the injured list Thursday night, coach Erik Spoelstra had the rare opportunity against the Bulls to formulate a rotation only missing Dion Waiters.
That’s only happened two other times since Waiters had season-ending ankle injury on Dec. 22: both home games against Philadelphia over the past month.
The first time, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson each missed time after leaving a 102-101 win over the Sixers on Feb. 27 with quad injuries. The next time, a 108-99 win over Philly on March 8, no one left the game injured for the Heat, but Whiteside sustained a strained hip flexor at shootaround hours before Miami’s next game, a 129-102 blowout of the Wizards on March 10.
Thursday, after the Heat elected to make forward Luke Babbitt its healthy inactive player, Johnson went down with a sprained right ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return. It’s unclear what his status is moving forward.
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With the playoffs nearing and the Heat getting close to regaining full health, Spoelstra said juggling his roster and rotations will not get any harder because his decision will be based on “whatever is best for the team.”
“Whatever we think gives us the best chance down the stretch run,” Spoelstra said pregame of who will play and who will sit. “It could be different game to game. We have a pretty good idea of who our main core of guys are, but I won’t hesitate to throw other guys in there if it’s going to help us win a game.”
In addition to Babbitt, who has played mostly as a spot starter when Ellington was out, guard Rodney McGruder has seen his minutes reduced. When Whiteside has been healthy, Adebayo has usually played fewer minutes. With James Johnson playing better and Dwyane Wade healthy, Justise Winslow has received less work of late as well.
“The guys are really good about it,” Spoelstra said. “They understand. We’re at this point in the season where you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Guys really understand this concept of sacrifice.”
WILL HEAT AVOID SLIPUPS?
Following Thursday’s game against the lottery-bound Bulls, the Heat will play three more teams with losing records over its next four games – Saturday against Brooklyn, a home-road back-to-back against Atlanta and then a road game against the Knicks.
Can Miami avoid slip-ups similar to ones its had earlier in the season to each of those teams as it fights for playoff seeding?
“I’m not going to say no because you never know,” All-Star point guard Goran Dragic said. “But at least, I can say we’re aware of these kind of games because we already know what happened last season or even against the team that on paper we’re better but we lost those games.”
Spoelstra said the Heat has to “stay locked in.”
“There are a lot of different scenarios that are going on around the league,” he said. “You have a lot of teams that are playing for the draft. You have teams that are just trying to stay healthy for the playoffs and are pretty locked into their playoff seeding. And then you have teams that are still jockeying for position. We’re one of those teams in that bucket. So we still have to play this out.
“We know what our record is against a lot of these teams that are in the lottery that are not going to the playoffs, but that’s in the past. That’s in the past. It’s about us building on a performance the other night against Cleveland. There really isn’t a reason why in my mind that we can’t come out with the same type of passion and intensity and enthusiasm to be able to compete for something big.”
▪ Was Spoelstra surprised to see Adebayo return from a sprained ankle (a one game absence) so quickly? Not in the least.
“He’s 20,” Spoelstra said. “If he’s 35, those ankle sprains last a little bit longer. When he first sprained his ankle and he was out, we told him the story of LeBron. How he used to sprain his ankle, bang his foot and be ready to go. I think Bam took us seriously on that, that he can do that, too. But he is young. He’s done all of his treatment and his body responded incredibly well the last couple of days. But he’s been here eight hours a day.”