Miami Heat

It’s not just defense for Heat: Miami’s bench has become league’s best in last month

Heat center Bam Adebayo, left, puts on the defense on Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr., center, in the first half during the NBA game between the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the American Airlines Arena on Friday, December 28, 2018 in Miami, Florida.
Heat center Bam Adebayo, left, puts on the defense on Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr., center, in the first half during the NBA game between the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the American Airlines Arena on Friday, December 28, 2018 in Miami, Florida. cjuste@miamiherald.com

The Miami Heat knows it isn’t structured like other perennial playoff teams across the league. No one on the roster has any illusions about being a player who can singlehandedly carry the offense.

Miami, of course, wins when its defense locks in — in its last eight wins, the Heat has held its opponent to fewer than 100 points — but Miami also needs an all-hands-on-deck approach to offense. In its last 14 games, the Heat’s bench leads the league in rebounds per game, and ranks second in both scoring and assists. Miami is 10-4 in those 14 games dating back to the last day of November.

“We don’t have a so-called great superstar, one of those elite guy,” forward Justise Winslow said after practice Saturday in Miami. “We’ve got a lot of good players from top to bottom.”

The Heat (17-17) has found its formula in the last month, winning with defense and depth. On Sunday, Miami will have another chance to climb above .500 for the first time this season when it hosts the Minnesota Timberwolves at 6 p.m. at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Miami’s bench has been a strength all season. Buoyed in part by this excellent 14-game stretch, the Heat’s bench ranks eighth in scoring at 42.4 points per game, but the reserves have been better across the board since the start of December. In the past 14, Miami’s bench is averaging 46.1 points, 22.6 rebounds and 11.5 assists per game despite playing at one of the league’s slowest paces. As a whole, the Heat is averaging 104.1 points, 47.4 points and 24.6 assists in the 10-4 stretch heading into Sunday against the Timberwolves (16-19) in Miami.

“I feel like we’re not going to say this, but each unit is going to try to be better than each other,” said post player Bam Adebayo, who scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds off the bench in a 118-94 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. “It’s like a silent battle between the two of us to see who can be the better unit and that’s just been helping our team.”

Winslow won’t credit all the success just to players embracing their roles as the calendar approaches 2019, but he feels it’s something of a factor. Winslow pointed specifically to swingman Wayne Ellington, who averaged 26.1 minutes per game and is now almost entirely out of the rotation.

It’s a luxury the Heat has most other teams don’t. For almost a full month, Miami has taken advantage.

“You never know what’s going to hold, but I think we’re definitely getting into some role identity right now and that’s what winning does,” said Winslow, who recently joined the starting lineup. “Winning makes it easier for everyone to kind of accept that role, especially when everyone’s buying in like we are right now.”

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Dion Waiters plays five-on-five

It had been a full year since the last time Dion Waiters played real five-on-five basketball before Friday. The injured swingman headed out to Sioux Falls, S.D., to spend a few days working with the G-League Sioux Falls Skyforce and his long road back from an ankle injury finally led him to something close to a real basketball game.

“They were able to scrimmage for about an hour — five-on-five — which obviously is incredible for this time of year,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after practice at AmericanAirlines on Saturday. “We haven’t been able to do that really since training camp or preseason, so I would say that’s a great step for his development.”

Waiters, who last played for Miami in 2017 and had ankle surgery in January, is finally close to getting back on the court for the Heat.

Spoelstra exchanged text messages with Waiters and spoke with Skyforce coach Nevada Smith about the guard’s progress. While there’s still no definitive timetable in place, Waiters will return from South Dakota on Sunday when Sioux Falls resumes its schedule. The Heat is not expecting Waiters to suit up when Miami hosts Minnesota.

“We’re not into the day to day evaluations. It’s more about getting the five-on-five,” Spoelstra said. “He’s done so much to get to this point. He’s checked off every box. What he needs to do is play. You’re talking about a full calendar year of not playing five-on-five. That takes time.”

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