The makeup of the Miami Heat has changed quite a bit since the preseason, when the organization challenged Josh Richardson to be the team’s next go-to option. Last month, the Heat let Justise Winslow take the reins as the starting point guard. Around the same time, Goran Dragic, Miami’s lone All-Star last season, had knee surgery.
Early in the season, the Heat went as Richardson went. At the midway point of the season, it’s no longer the case. Miami has found a more balanced approach. Fortunately for Richardson, he fits perfectly in this style, too. In the Heat’s 112-108 win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, Winslow shouldered the scoring burden, so Richardson slid into a complementary role.
“When I was coming off screens or driving they were kind of sending everybody to the paint, so I was really just finding open guys,” Richardson said in the locker room after the win. “There’s a lot of guys in there.”
The combo guard as one of seven Miami players to score in double figures — Winslow led the way with a game-high 26 points — and Richardson served as the offense’s primary triggerman. Although his opportunities to play point guard are more rare now than they were at the end 2018, Richardson set a new career mark Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena with nine assists.
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Richardson still leads the Heat (21-20) averaging 18 points per game, but his average has steadily slipped. Through the first month of the season, Richardson averaged 20.6 points per game. Through two months, he averaged 18.6.
Becoming the go-to option for Miami was never just going to be about scoring for the 25-year-old, though. Richardson never averaged three assists per game in his first three seasons and he wanted to improve his playmaking in his fourth year. After Friday, Richardson is averaging 3.9 assists per game, second most among eligible players behind only Winslow. The swingman’s 157 total assists also lead the team.
“I think I’m starting to make better reads,” Richardson said. “I think I’ve been looking at the last few games, making sure my assist-to-turnover ratio is positive. I think I’ve been doing a good job so far.”
Richardson, who also finished with 14 points and six rebounds to go with his nine assists, picked apart the Grizzlies’ defense from all manner of different angles.
His first assist came the Heat’s second basket. Richardson gathered a defensive rebound and took over as the point guard for a possession. He dribbled up the left side of the court, then attacked from the left wing. Memphis’ defense collapsed and Richardson found Winslow at the top of the key for a wide-open three-pointer.
His next assist came by playing a two-man game with Dwyane Wade. The guard passed to Richardson, who then barreled into the high post where Wade was previously stationed. Richardson absorbed Wade’s defender and handed the ball to the 12-time All-Star for another three.
He later ran the same sort of two-man game with Winslow to get the point forward an open three. He once found a cutting Wade for a layup off a pick-and-roll and used another pick-and-roll play to get guard Tyler Johnson a three. Richardson linked up with Bam Adebayo twice, too, once on a transition alley-oop and again finding the post player with a pocket pass on a simple pick-and-roll set.
“We’re getting better in terms of helping each other generate open looks,” coach Erik Spoelstra said in his postgame press conference. “J-Rich was able to be aggressive and because of his size he was making plays over the top. ... He made a lot of plays, either on pocket passes or over the top to our bigs, or under the basket because of his size spraying it out to open shooters on the weak side.”
Only one of Richardson’s nine assists came because he was the point guard making the pass to a player coming from from action away from the ball.
His final assist was one of three three-pointers he helped set up for Johnson. With 5:23 remaining, Miami’s offense broke down, so Richardson tried to create. He sliced down the left side of the lane and the defense swarmed. There was no space to get up a clean look, so Richardson whipped a pass from beneath the basket out to the right wing. Johnson ran to the open space, picked up the bouncing ball and dropped in one of his four threes to give the Heat a 102-99 lead.
In the final box score, Richardson and Winslow flipped roles, with the leading scorer leading the team in assists and the leading assister leading the team in scoring. There was do design to the result, though. Winslow’s reads led him to score and Richardson’s led him to pass.
It’s exactly what Miami wants them both to do.
“I don’t really think it’s playmaking versus scoring. I think it’s just being aggressive and making the right play,” Winslow said in the locker room after the game. “If you get in the paint and no one really stops you, you’re going to finish. If you get in the paint and someone stops you, you’re going to make the right play, so every game is different, but our job as primary ballhandlers is to get guys organized and make the right reads, so that’s what we did tonight.”