Jimmy Butler didn’t suit up for the Miami Heat in its preseason finale Friday and, at least on offense, it didn’t matter. It was only an opportunity for Kendrick Nunn to become the Heat’s latest preseason darling.
Butler has alternated between playing the role of facilitator and finisher for the Heat throughout the preseason. On Friday, he played the role of cheerleader, sitting out the Heat’s preseason finale against the Houston Rockets in Miami, which meant a chance for Nunn to step up. The point guard exploded for 40 points and the Heat pushed the Rockets to the brink without Butler before falling 144-133 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Here are five takeaways from the final tune-up before the regular season begins Wednesday:
Kendrick Nunn is going to make the team. The real question is: How much will he play?
The Heat’s preseason finale featured former MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden — and future MVP Tyler Herro — and still the most impressive highlight of the night came from Nunn, an undrafted player who found his way to Miami after blowing away the team in the NBA Summer League following a season in the NBA G League.
The Heat was being blown out late in the third quarter, so Nunn tried to push the pace. The guard blazed down the court and slipped past Westbrook by wrapping the ball around his back. The move gave him a sliver of space between Westbrook and center Tyson Chandler and the guard finished an and-one. He nearly singlehandedly guided the Heat to a spectacular comeback. Miami trailed by as much as 21 in the third quarter before cutting the lead as close as five in the fifth.
Harden finished with 44 points. Nunn finished with 40.
“I really didn’t lock on a player. I was just playing my game, finding my spots on the floor and making shots. That’s all I did tonight,” Nunn said. “It felt normal, honestly. I’m aggressive every time I step on the floor. I got to play most of the game tonight and I performed well.”
With Butler out, Miami turned to Nunn as one of its starters in the backcourt and he took advantage. Playing against Houston’s actual lineup, Nunn exploded for 28 points in the second half, including 17 in the fourth quarter. Nunn broke down the defense in all manner of styles and, most importantly, he was efficient. The guard went 15 of 27 from the field, 6 of 10 from three-point range and 4 of 6 on free throws.
He led Miami with seven points on 3-of-5 shooting in the first quarter and his three buckets ran the gamut of reasons why Miami has faith in his offensive ability. He got on the board first by isolating against Westbrook and hitting a stepback jumper in the All-Star point guard’s face. Four minutes later, Nunn cut to the rim and post player Bam Adebayo found him for a slashing layup. He wrapped up his first quarter by hitting one of the Heat’s four first-quarter threes.
Nunn winding up with the Heat was partly fortuitous — Miami had an open roster spot for the last game after waiving wing Rodney McGruder to get under the luxury tax in a lost season — but the scouting department liked what it saw from him with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Golden State Warriors’ G League affiliate.
Golden State cut Nunn ahead of the regular season a year ago and the rookie said he still has a chip on his shoulder because of it. He will almost certainly make the cut this year.
The Heat has got shooters.
Don’t tell Portland Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside, but the Heat is loaded with capable shooters and it helped the offense succeed Friday even without Butler in the lineup. In the first quarter alone, four different players for Miami hit a three-pointer. By halftime, the Heat had hit 10 threes — by five different players — and had 70 points with its one potential All-NBA player on the bench.
Last season, the Heat ranked in the bottom third of the league in three-point percentage and it meant there was a point in almost every game when the offense would break down. Dwyane Wade, 37, was the closest thing Miami had to a reliable creator and when he was on the bench the Heat too frequently couldn’t get good shots.
Nunn carried the offense in the second half, but Miami stayed afloat in the first half because of three-point shooting. The Heat finished 18 of 37 from long range.
Jimmy Butler would still help, though.
Nunn handled himself more than fine in the matchup against Westbrook. The Heat’s array of shooting guards can’t say the same of their matchup with Harden.
The Rockets wound up beating Miami because of Harden. The guard looked every bit like an MVP on Friday, scoring 44 points and going 12 of 26 from the floor, 8 of 16 on threes and 12 of 13 from the free-throw line.
There is no one in the league who can truly guard Harden’s, but Butler, Miami’s best option, was stuck to the bench all night and the Heat paid.
“We’ll have to continue to build our habits,” Spoelstra said, “but there are a handful of teams in this league that are so unique that even what you do and do well don’t necessarily translate against a team like the Houston Rockets, and, in particular, somebody like James Harden.”
Tyler Herro’s defense is a work in progress.
Herro was the third player off the bench for the Heat on Friday. If there’s one reason he won’t climb much higher in the Heat’s rotation on a regular basis, it will be his defense.
As soon as the shooting guard entered, Houston made a point of finding him whenever it was on offense. Miami has a chance to be an excellent defensive team this season, which means Herro will often be the one obvious weak link defensively if he’s playing in lineups with players like Butler, Winslow and Adebayo.
Herro’s issue is his defense isn’t just a matter of lack of effort or mental lapses. Herro, who has positioned himself as a dark-horse contender for Rookie of the Year thanks to an impressive preseason offensively, simply isn’t quick enough to stay in front of some of the quickest guards in the league.
The most obvious example of his issues came on the Rockets’ first possession of the second quarter. Russell Westbrook got the ball on the left wing and immediately set up an isolation situation against Herro. The point guard made a simple crossover from his right hand to his left and his first step was just too quick for Herro to handle. Herro was immediately on Westbrook’s hip, following the guard to the rim to futilely contest an easy layup.
Herro is still frisky on the defensive end of the floor, though. Friday was probably his worst performance of the preseason and he still finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two assists, and went 4 of 8 from three-point range.
What are the regular-season roles for Dion Waiters and James Johnson?
Dion Waiters was the 10th player into the game for the Heat on Friday. James Johnson didn’t get in at all.
Waiters, who has openly pined for a starting role, has been on the fringe of Miami’s rotation all preseason after dedicating himself to getting in shape after an ankle injury robbed him of much of the last two seasons. Johnson, who started 33 games last year, missed training camp because he failed to meet the Heat’s conditioning requirements and didn’t suit up once in the preseason because of his conditioning.
They’re two of the highest paid players on Miami’s roster and their places in the Heat’s rotation are unclear.
Waiters at least had his moments in the preseason. The wing exploded for 19 points in a blowout win against the Charlotte Hornets on Oct. 9, going 7 of 12 from the field and 4 of 5 on threes. Waiters, however, only scored 13 points total in his other four preseason appearances, averaging 10 minutes per game.
It’s impossible to know what Miami will get out of Johnson. The forward returned to practice for the Heat last Friday, but Spoelstra doesn’t feel he is up to speed to actually get in a game.