Wayne Ellington simply smiled as he was questioned about his surprising lack of playing time Wednesday before the Heat took down the San Antonio Spurs for a 95-88 win in Miami. Expected to be a fixture in the Heat’s rotation this season, Ellington had only appeared in two games for a grand total of 12 minutes, so his brief appearance in the home locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena about an hour before tipoff drew a bit of sarcastic questioning.
Ellington laughed off the questions before disappearing to a different part of the Heat’s facilities. About 20 minutes later, Miami announced Goran Dragic wouldn’t play. Shortly after that, the Heat announced its starting lineup — featuring Ellington.
“I have great empathy for Wayne because he was really disappointed about being out early on. He put so much time into this summer and into his work. He’s an absolute pro,” coach Erik Spoelstra said in his postgame news conference. “Because we have a deep team, he had to wait, but he understands how long a season is and how to prepare regardless of what’s going on.”
This is simply how the Miami will have to function this season. With Ellington’s 37 minutes Wednesday, the Heat has now had 11 different players log at least 17 minutes in a game this season. Somewhat surprisingly, Ellington’s first game to meet such a threshold didn’t arrive until Wednesday, when he set season bests in minutes, points, rebounds, steals and three-pointers.
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That Ellington had not played much until Wednesday was one of the most unexpected developments of the early season. Miami deemed Ellington valuable enough to dip into the luxury-tax range in order to keep him. Ellington played in 77 games last season and started 15 in the past two. He even competed in the Three-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend in February. Ellington’s reputation as one of the NBA’s top spot-up shooters made his place in the rotation seem assured.
It simply hadn’t been the case for most of the first month of the season. An injury held Ellington off the court for the first four games of the season, and he still only played in two of the next five when he was healthy.
Suddenly, his role changed Wednesday. With Dragic and Dwyane Wade both out, Spoelstra inserted Ellington into the starting lineup. After playing only 12 minutes in his first five games, Ellington was on the floor for 37 on Wednesday, scoring 20 points to help Miami snap an 11-game losing streak to the Spurs.
“I’m exhausted,” Ellington said inside the Heat’s locker room after the game. “I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight.”
Ellington delivered exactly what Miami expects from him. His 20 points came almost entirely from beyond the arc, as Ellington went 6 of 10 from three-point range, and they were the sort of threes he’s best at. All six of his threes came off assists, including a 31-footer to give the Heat a 12-point lead with 1:41 left in the third quarter. Most of them came curling around screens, taking advantage of his quick release and ability to knock down off-balance shots.
Ellington’s first came less than three minutes in. Center Hassan Whiteside posted up, drawing the Spurs’ defense into the paint. The center spotted Ellington on the right wing and hit him just inside the three-point line. Ellington hopped backward and splashed in the stepback three to give the Heat an early 7-4 lead.
Less than a minute later, Whiteside posted up again and Ellington curled to the left wing for a catch-and-shoot three with a defender bearing down to stretch the lead to 13-4.
“It felt great to be back out there with the guys, first and foremost,” Ellington said. “To knock down those first couple, that kind of allows me to have that confidence. It just felt amazing to be back out there on the floor.”
Ultimately, Miami won with defense, but it needed every little bit of scoring it could find to scrape by. Although Whiteside delivered the bulk of the offense with a game-high 29 points, Ellington’s efficient 20 were critical.
He added a third first-quarter three when he came off a screen by Whiteside for another catch-and-shoot jumper, stretching the Heat’s lead to 22-8 and the early edge was enough to hold for four quarters. San Antonio never led after taking a 2-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to the early barrage from Ellington and Whiteside.
“With Goran and Dwyane out, that was something that was on our minds. Were we going to be able to get enough points on the board tonight?” Spoelstra said. “Those 20 points really were like a lifeline for us.”