Miami Heat

Butler plays role of scorer and Dragic plays big in second half. Takeaways from Heat-Suns

It won’t be a winless trip for the Heat.

The Heat defeated the Suns 124-108 on Thursday at Talking Stick Resort Arena, bouncing back from Tuesday’s blowout loss to the Nuggets to begin the three-game trip.

With a 6-2 record, the Heat is off to its best eight-game start to a season since beginning 2012-13 with the same record.

The Heat wraps up its three-game trip with a Friday matchup against LeBron James and the Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back.

Here are five takeaways from Miami’s road win over Phoenix (5-3) ...

1. This was the Jimmy Butler game in the first half. Then it turned into the Goran Dragic game in the second half.

After starting the season with more of a playmaking approach than a scoring one, Butler decided to take on the role of scorer against the Suns. The Heat’s new leading man finished with a team-high and season high 34 points on 11 of 16 shooting, five rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes.

Before Thursday, Butler ranked third on the Heat in scoring (15) and shot attempts (12) per game. He instead led the team in assists and steals through the Heat’s first seven games.

But Butler said his teammates and coaches were on him to look for his shot entering Thursday’s game against the Suns.

“I think that was maybe a little key before the game when everybody was just telling me to keep being aggressive, to keep shooting,” Butler said. “I think as long as my teammates, my coaches want me to be that way, maybe it’s OK to play that way every once in a while. But I like to pass the ball.”

Butler’s previous season-high for points was 21, which came in his Heat regular-season debut on Oct. 29 against the Hawks. It didn’t take him long to surpass that mark Thursday, as he scored his 22nd point of the night with 2:29 to play in the first half.

Butler looked different from the start in Phoenix, scoring 18 first-quarter points. It marked Butler’s new career-high for points in a first quarter.

Then Butler scored some more in the second quarter to finish with a 30-point first half on 9-of-10 shooting from the field and 10-of-10 shooting on free throws. That marked Butler’s new career-high for points in a first half.

“I like that guy,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler, the scorer. “It was good to get introduced to him tonight. That guy is special. He really is. He set the tone for the game, obviously, in that first half. And we just played off his offensive force. Just really smart basketball, getting to the rim, taking his open looks, also setting the table up for other people. He’s able to do it and not get tired, and that’s what’s unique. He does it on both ends.”

Butler, who was acquired by the Heat in free agency this past summer, finished one point short of tying the franchise record for points in a first half. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Sherman Douglas each had 31-point first halves as members of the Heat.

“That was playoff Jimmy. He was unbelievable,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “He’s an unbelievable two-way player. He can guard, he can score and he was a huge boost for us in that first half.”

Dragic wasn’t bad himself. The 33-year-old took over in the second half, with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting off the Heat’s bench over the final two quarters . He scored five on 2-of-6 shooting in the first half.

“It’s a great luxury for us to bring an All-Star talent like him in his prime still off the bench,” Spoelstra said of Dragic. “I don’t take that for granted. We make sure the team doesn’t take that for granted. There are young guys that are playing and you have an All-Star and a proven highly decorated player and winner in this league doing that, that’s a great sacrifice. That’s a great example for the young guys on our team.”

Dragic finished with 25 points, six rebounds and four assists against his former team. He is now averaging 27 points in the five games he has played in Phoenix since the Suns traded him to the Heat in February 2015.

“It is,” Dragic said when asked if it’s still special to play against his former team. “If you ask every player, if you play against your former team, it’s extra motivation.”

On the other side, Suns guard Devin Booker entered Thursday tied for 10th in the league in scoring average at 26.1 per game. Against the Heat, Booker finished with 22 points on 6-of-13 shooting.

2. With Heat forward Justise Winslow out because of a headache, Duncan Robinson was used in Winslow’s spot in the starting lineup against the Suns.

And the starting group of Kendrick Nunn, Butler, Meyers Leonard, Bam Adebayo and Robinson was effective once again. The Heat outscored the Suns 22-10 over the first 5:57 of the game before Dragic was inserted as Miami’s first substitution.

The lineup started the second half off strong, too. The five-man group outscored the Suns 7-4 before the first Heat substitution was made.

The sample size isn’t big, but this Nunn-Butler-Robinson-Leonard-Adebayo group has been the Heat’s best lineup to start the season.

Whether it’s the extra spacing Robinson’s shooting provides or just a case of a small sample size, the lineup has now outscored opponents by a team-best 46 points over the four games it has been used this season.

As for Winslow, the Heat announced after Thursday’s game that he has entered the NBA’s concussion protocol following Winslow’s collision with Nuggets forward Paul Millsap on Tuesday. Winslow was cleared to fly with the team to Los Angeles for Friday’s game.

Along with Winslow, the Heat was without Daryl Macon (G League, two-way contract) and KZ Okpala (left Achilles strain) Thursday.

Udonis Haslem and Dion Waiters were both active despite stomach issues, but they did not play against the Suns. It marked the second game this season that Waiters has been on the Heat’s active roster since serving his one-game suspension in the Oct. 23 season opener for “conduct detrimental to the team.” But in both games, Waiters has not been on the team’s bench.

3. With Derrick Jones Jr. exiting Thursday’s game after the first half with a left hip strain, forward James Johnson got playing time against the Suns.

Johnson finished with three points and one rebound 15 minutes.

It marked Johnson’s third game of the season after spending the past month working toward meeting the team’s conditioning standards regarding body fat and weight. He was sent away on the eve of training camp on Sept. 30 and did not return to the team until Oct. 11 after failing to meet the Heat’s conditioning requirements.

Johnson made his season debut in Sunday’s win over the Rockets, finishing with with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, four rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes.

But Johnson was limited to just six minutes in Tuesday’s loss to the Nuggets after Winslow and Jones returned from injury that game.

With Winslow out and Jones exiting the game early, minutes opened up for Johnson in Phoenix.

4. Leonard continues to hit threes at a very high rate.

Among those who have played in more than one game and are averaging at least two three-point shot attempts per game, Leonard entered shooting threes at an NBA-best 64.3 percent this season.

That number went up Thursday, with Leonard making both of his three-point shot attempts against the Suns. The 7-footer finished with six points in 13 minutes.

Leonard is now shooting 68.8 percent (11 of 16) from three-point range over the first eight games of the season.

5. The Heat apparently enjoys playing the Suns ... and in Phoenix.

With Thursday’s victory, the Heat has won 11 of the past 12 games over the Suns in Phoenix. Miami’s only loss in Phoenix during that stretch, which began in the 2007-08 season, came on Jan. 3, 2017.

“It feels great,” Butler said of Thursday’s win. “But I think it’s actually easy to do whenever you get your tail kicked like we did [against the Nuggets]. We knew we had to come out with some fire and get this one on the road. I think we did a great job of that. We talked about it, we had a long film session. Guys worked on our games yesterday, as well.”

The Heat has also won 17 of its past 19 overall games against the Suns. One of those losses came last season, when the Suns snapped a 17-game losing streak with a win over the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 25.

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.